Nate Silver: Obama 'probably a slight underdog'

nytmag-cover-11611.jpgThe headline on the Sunday Magazine cover story by Nate Silver, the New York Times' in-house cruncher of pre-election numbers and handicapper of political races, asks whether President Obama is already toast, second-term wise. Follow the link for the discussion and the caveats, or keep reading here for the nut grafs.

Obama has gone from a modest favorite to win re-election to, probably, a slight underdog. Let’s not oversell this. A couple of months of solid jobs reports, or the selection of a poor Republican opponent, would suffice to make him the favorite again.

Nevertheless, this is an unusual circumstance. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes all looked like the favorite to win a year in advance of their re-election battles, either having strong approval ratings or good-enough ones accompanied by robust economic numbers. When we look at the last eight elected presidents, only Carter faced a situation worse than Obama’s: approval ratings in the low 30s rather than low 40s, the likelihood rather than the mere possibility of a recession, a primary challenge rather than a clear path to renomination and a crisis in Iran rather than a string of foreign-policy victories.

The other seven had stronger fundamentals heading into the election year. This includes the elder Bush, who lost despite an extremely high approval rating and a disarrayed Democratic field (Mario Cuomo and others skipped the race at a time when Bush appeared unbeatable). It also includes Reagan and Clinton, who had grave problems early in their terms but who saw their numbers tick upward at the very moment in their presidencies that Obama’s have continued to slide. None of this is news to the White House. Following the debt-ceiling debate, Obama’s strategists started comparing their boss with the original comeback kid, Harry Truman — an implicit concession that the president will most likely fight 2012 from behind.

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