Three years ago, the state of Virginia flipped. It had voted for George W. Bush in 2004, but in 2008, it went for Barack Obama, with the help of independent voters like Emily Perri. But as Perri cast her ballot in local elections in Fairfax on Tuesday morning, she wasn't so sure she would vote for the president again.
"I'm not entirely positive, you know, another four years will help improve things or not under Obama," Perri said.
That sums up the problem for President Obama: His support among independents has collapsed; his overall approval ratings are well below those of other presidents who went on to win a second term; unemployment is expected to stay near 9 percent until Election Day in 2012; and consumer confidence is now as low as it was in 1980 and 1991 — the last two times an incumbent president lost.
The historical precedents are all so negative, The New York Times ran an article over the weekend with this headline: Is Obama Toast? Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman and a veteran political strategist, says the president's challenges are daunting, but not insurmountable.
"It's certainly not the environment that he faced three years ago," Davis says. "But a year is an eternity in this business. I think that clearly they've got to improve the economy, or at least give people the feeling that things are getting better, that they have the plan [and] the Republicans won't let them. But that's tough — although, you know, campaigns matter."
Campaigns do matter, and the Obama team ran a great one in 2008. Now, its challenge is to reassemble the pieces in an inhospitable political environment.
Re-Energizing The Base
"We're the first presidential re-election campaign in history where our organization didn't go away when the president came into office," says Ben Labolt, the press secretary for the Obama campaign.
"We maintained our organization throughout the administration through Organizing for America," he adds. "Now, the next phase of that effort is expanding the organization, reconnecting not only with former supporters from 2008, but also expanding the electorate, registering new voters and finding new Obama supporters."
In 2008, Obama's victory was built on those expansion voters — millions of young people and minorities voting for the first time. But it will be harder to re-energize them next year now that the euphoria of the first Obama crusade is a faded memory.
This past weekend, the Obama campaign began its one-year countdown by holding 2,100 grass-roots events around the country. Jeremy Bird, the campaign's field director, says they were registering voters, signing up volunteers and opening up campaign offices across the country, from Henderson, Nev., to Green Bay, Wis., and elsewhere.
This time around, despite a political landscape tilted against it, the Obama campaign does retain some advantages: It has the money to be competitive everywhere; and, with no primary challenge, it has the time to set up an organization around the country.
Of course, the fabled Obama grass-roots team wasn't able to protect Democrats from a historic loss in the 2010 midterm elections. But Bird is convinced that next year it will be easier to turn out those expansion voters, because the electorate will be younger, browner and more Obama-friendly than it was in 2010.
And, says Bird, "he wasn't on the ballot in 2010, and you know, we have just a completely different program with him on the ballot, so it will just be a vastly different election and different conversations that we'll be having with voters from here until Election Day."
The president himself is having a different, much more sober conversation with his supporters. At fundraisers, he reminds them that instead of riding a wave, they'll have to grind it out.
In a recent campaign video, he tries to rekindle their enthusiasm: "That's really what this election's gonna come down to — whether we'll come together to finish the work we started, or sit back and watch as the progress we've made gets rolled back."
The president made history in 2008. To get re-elected in 2012, he'll have to defy the odds and make history again.