Absurdly Premature 2012 Watch, Vol. 13: Will Obama Suffer the Same Fate as Deval Patrick?

Official White House photo by Pete Souza

Publishing the least-informative inside-the-Beltway story of the week is no small feat—especially when it's only Monday morning. And yet something tells me that Politico has taken the cake, yet again, with a piece currently running near the top of its Web site (and teased in Mike Allen's Playbook newsletter as today's "Top Talker") on why Gov. Deval Patrick's reelection bid in Massachusetts will be "a bellwether for how Obama fares in 2012."

Really? Writer Carol Lee makes her case by pointing out the similarities between the two candidates. Some are relevant: both candidates are, to borrow a phrase, "hopey-changey" types, and both rely on the Two Davids (Plouffe and Axelrod) for advice. These factors at least have something to do with political campaigning. Most of the rest, however, are comically tangential: both are "Harvard Law School graduates with Chicago roots"; both were "raised by a single mother and forced to come to terms with a strained relationship with a distant father"; "both are married to attorneys and have two daughters." And one—the fact both are "trailblazing, post-civil-rights era African-American politicians"—is almost offensive in that it's buried deep down in the 19th paragraph, as if it were an afterthought, even though it's probably the main reason Politico greenlighted the piece in the first place. Both Tim Kaine and Obama attended Harvard Law and worked as civil-rights attorneys before entering politics; both could trace their maternal lineage back to the same small town in Kansas (El Dorado,

The result is a story that's superficial to the point of being misleading. There are three forces that decide political campaigns: the candidates, the issues, and the electorate. If Politico had bothered to address any of this stuff, they would've concluded that, actually, Obama 2012 won't actually look a whole lot like Patrick 2010. To wit:

The candidates. As aspiring officeholders, Obama and Patrick had a lot in common. But their records as chief executives are very different. Patrick has had an impossible time convincing the Massachusetts legislature to pass any of his proposals, and his first months in office were marred by a series of missteps and mini scandals—spending more than $10,000 on drapes for the governor's statehouse suite, upgrading his state car from a Ford Crown Victoria to a Cadillac, axing most of his staff—that have made it difficult for him to establish trust with the public. Only 39 percent of Bay Staters approve of the job Patrick is doing; a paltry 13 percent view him "very favorably." Meanwhile, 61 percent disapprove of his performance.

Obama is a different story. So far, he has passed every piece of legislation—the stimulus, fair pay, health-care reform, jobs bills—that he has pushed for, and seems likely to continue his streak with financial regulation and energy security. At this point, the president's job-approval rating stands at 49 percent, 10 points higher than Patrick's, while his disapproval rating is 45 percent, or 16 points lower. That's healthy enough for now. Legislative success might anger one's opponents, but it also energizes one's base—and that, in turn, makes it a lot easier to win elections.

The other difference is that Patrick is running against two major candidates—Republican Charlie Baker and Independent Tim Cahill—who are likely to split the anti-incumbent vote; when combined, the challengers' latest poll numbers (Baker, 32 percent; Cahill, 19 percent) easily overcome the governor's meager support (35 percent). Chances are, Obama will only face one serious foe in 2012: a Republican. A three-way clustercuss is completely different than a traditional head-to-head matchup. It's silly to compare them.

The issues. As far as I can tell, none of the defining issues of the 2010 Massachusetts gubernatorial race—casino gambling, state budget woes, criminal records reform, a failure to cut taxes as promised—are problems for Obama. Meanwhile, the one that is, the economy, is likely to change a lot between November 2010 and November 2012. Although we've already had several quarters of growth, jobs are lagging—meaning incumbents will probably be punished in the upcoming midterms. But in 2012, according to the Council of Economic Advisers, unemployment will fall to 8.2 percent, and given that the CEA's estimate is based on forecasts that add an average of 90,000 jobs each month, it will dip even lower if March's job growth (160,000 new positions) can be sustained. This isn't to say that Obama's reelection will be easy. It won't. But he and Patrick will be dealing with different issues at different times, so drawing parallels is probably futile.

The electorate. On the one hand, voters in Massachusetts are far more liberal than the national average: 57 percent lean Democratic and 28 percent lean Republican, compared to a 48-38 split nationwide. On the other hand, they tend to elect Rockefeller Republican governors in order to counterbalance the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature and keep spending under control. Patrick, in fact, is the Bay State's first Democratic governor since 1991. This odd combination—a liberal electorate in search of a palatable Republican leader—is completely unlike what Obama will face in 2012. There's really no comparison.

I understand, of course, why Politico published Lee's piece: it fits comfortably into a preexisting narrative that's already proven to drive traffic. During the 2008 campaign, the chattering classes constantly wondered whether Patrick's problems in Massachusetts were a preview of what was to come if Obama were to win the presidency. People had never really considered the prospect of a young, black president, so they were eager to grasp at any available straws. But the predictions were wrong, as any predictions based on little more than hope, change, and a similar skin color are liable to be. And now they'll probably be wrong again. Like much of what Politico writes, the Patrick-Obama story has more to do with "winning the morning" than with reality.

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