Like all but three presidents since the end of the Second World War, Barack Obama was reelected in 2012. (1) Obama triumphed over Republican challenger Mitt Romney by 332-206 in the Electoral College and by 51 to 47% in the national popular vote. Obama secured a second term with fewer electoral votes and fewer popular votes than he had accrued in the 2008 election cycle, becoming only the second Democrat in U.S. history, the other being Franklin Roosevelt, to win a majority of the popular vote more than once. Most preelection polls showed modest advantages for Obama (relative to Romney) over the course of the campaign, but the contest between the two contenders, at least according to preelection polls that registered voter preferences, remained close throughout (Panagopoulos 2013).
The president faced several headwinds in his reelection quest. First, despite signs of economic recovery from the severe recession that began in 2008, the economy remained fragile. Economic growth was anemic. During 2009, gross domestic product (GDP) growth fell by 2.3% but only rebounded in 2010 and 2011 by 2.5% and 1.8%, respectively. This compares with an average GDP growth rate of 3.2% for all years from 1946 through 2011. (2) Unemployment tells a similar story. The unemployment rate stood at 8.2% in January 2012, about 2.4 percentage points higher than the average for all months from 1948 through 2011, according to data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (3) Thus, on the economic front, often among the first factors that analysts look at in predicting and accounting for election outcomes, Barack Obama did not appear an overly successful steward. And the public seemed to agree that the president's economic leadership was lackluster. From mid-May 2009 onward, Gallup polls showed more voters disapproved of the president's handling of the economy than approved. (4)
But elections are not only about economics. The passage of other important legislation may affect a president's reelection prospects, which is one reason Paul Light (1982), among others, urges presidents to hit the ground running to secure major legislative accomplishments. In the legislative domain, Obama was also challenged. His signature piece of domestic legislation, health care reform (or so-called Obamacare), was controversial. Early in the debate on health care reform, pluralities of voters disapproved of the president's job in handling the issue according to Gallup. Over the first six months of 2012, well into the reelection season, disapproval on health care ran ahead of approval by 15-25 percentage points in almost all Gallup polls. (5) Additionally, the passage of Obamacare contributed to a major voter backlash against the administration and to the emergence of the Tea Party, which led to a resounding election defeat for the Democrats in the 2010 midterm congressional elections.
Looking at general indicators of public opinion would not necessarily indicate that Obama would be a formidable competitor. His overall job disapproval ratings tended to outpace his approval numbers by about two percentage points on average during the first six months of 2012, although his favorability ratings were stronger with about a four percentage-point edge for favorable versus unfavorable evaluations...