Quick, now. Try to name big segments of the electorate, or even prominent individuals, who opposed Barack Obama in 2008 but have joined his campaign for re-election. Difficulty in answering that question caused even the president, in a fleeting moment of candor, to suggest that he could easily lose the White House.
On May 10, Obama soured the mood of enthusiastic donors at a Seattle fundraiser by telling them that "this election is actually going to be even closer than the last." In other words, he knows that he has lost supporters, rather than gaining them, during his three-and-a-half years of leadership.
A "closer election" means that one of the few iron rules of U.S. politics indicates he'll lose his bid for a second term. History offers not one example of a chief executive whose popular appeal declined during his first term of office but nonetheless managed to eke out a re-election victory, as Obama proposes to do. Among the 24 elected presidents who sought second terms, all 15 who earned back-to-back victories drew more support in bids for re-election than they did in their previous campaigns.
In the past century, this base-broadening for re-elected presidents hasn't been modest or subtle. When Woodrow Wilson campaigned for re-election in 1916 (without Teddy Roosevelt as a third party competitor), his percentage of the popular vote soared by 7 points. Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 enhanced his already formidable popularity by 4 percentage points, and Dwight Eisenhower's landslide re-election in 1956 saw his share of the electorate rise from 55% to 57%. Richard Nixon's improvement amounted to a staggering 17 points in 1972, while Ronald Reagan's re-election percentage went up by 8 points.
Look at Clinton, Bush
More recently, Bill Clinton faced Ross Perot's "Reform Party" challenge in both his presidential contests but nonetheless raised his popular vote percentage from 43% in 1992 to 49% in his 1996 re-election campaign against Bob Dole. Even George W. Bush, whose disputed victory in 2000 and tumultuous first term produced toxic levels of partisan rancor, substantially improved his standing with the public, drawing an impressive 11.6 million more votes in his 2004 re-election campaign than in his contest with Al Gore, improving from 48% of the popular vote to a slight majority.
In fact, prominent Democrats who backed Gore in the prior election rallied to support the embattled incumbent and played prominent roles at the Republican Convention, including the keynote speaker, Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia. Other leading Democrats, such as former New York City mayor Ed Koch, Jimmy Carter's attorney general Griffin Bell and St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, all offered impassioned backing for Bush.
In contrast, several of Obama's hope-and-change boosters have deserted his cause and in some cases enlisted with the opposition. Artur Davis, three-term Alabama congressman and Congressional Black Caucus member, delivered a seconding speech for Obama in 2008, but he now backs Romney and has changed his registration to Republican. West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, a former governor, says he can't commit to supporting Obama this time, and the state's incumbent governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, expressed similar sentiments. Colin Powell, who proudly joined the Obama's first historic campaign for the White House, insists he remains uncommitted in 2012.
Meanwhile, the tight national polling shows static or declining enthusiasm for Obama in the key constituent groups that made up 2008's victorious coalition. The president still commands big leads among young people, Jewish voters, union households and unmarried women -- but his numbers are down from last time.
Even among African-American voters, where candidate Obama drew 95% of the vote in 2008, his backing looks less unanimous and enthusiastic, indicating potentially reduced turnout.
The president holds his own with Hispanics (thanks to his new emphasis on immigration) but can't expect significant improvement on the 67% he scored last time.
Four years ago, Obama won Catholic voters, but recent polls show this key swing constituency either evenly divided or tilting toward Romney.
If the president doesn't compensate for inevitable losses by adding new supporters, he's certain to lose the election: His vote total last time (nearly 52.9% against John McCain) doesn't provide a comfortable cushion against a more formidable opponent and more unified GOP. Democratic strategists must identify elements of the electorate where they can add new votes over 2008 rather than struggling on every front to limit their losses.
That's why the president's own prediction of an election "even closer than the last" might have unwittingly revealed his underlying pessimism in approaching November. He broke tradition and made history in 2008 by becoming the first non-white candidate elected to national office. It's also conceivable that he could discredit Romney thoroughly enough to become the only president to win a second term with reduced rather than enhanced support. But the odds, and records of all past campaigns, show that accepting fewer votes in a bid for re-election amounts to a formula for sure defeat rather than a blue-print for narrow victory.
Nationally syndicated talk radio host Michael Medved, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is author of The 5 Big Lies About American Business.
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