It's no accident that President Obama faced questions like these from voters last week, and it's no accident that the town-hall meeting was held at a community college in Virginia. The stated purpose of the gathering was to promote Mr. Obama's message on deficit reduction ahead of battles with congressional Republicans. But 18 months before Election Day 2012, Obama is also well into campaign mode in his quest for reelection.
Virginia is a key battleground state, and Northern Virginia Community College is full of young people – a cohort he will need to turn out for him again. It also has plenty of not-so-young students – people training for second careers and striving to maintain or earn a spot in the middle class.
Obama's other town-hall meetings during the week of April 18, in California and Nevada, also smacked of campaigning. Nevada is another swing state. And while California is solidly Democratic, it's a gold mine for fundraisers; he did six during this trip alone. In Silicon Valley, Obama visited Facebook headquarters and did an online town-hall meeting – more outreach to the under-30 crowd.
The Obama reelection campaign, formally declared on April 4, is built on an assumption that there are no sure things in politics. It is raising money fast and furiously, with a goal of surpassing the 2008 "take" of $750 million. Team Obama is also not counting on a weak Republican nominee, despite the slow formation of the field and early support for "birther" billionaire Donald Trump. And analysts don't see any lingering specialness in Obama's identity as the first black president.
"He's like any incumbent president running for reelection," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington. "The vote is going to be thumbs up or thumbs down on the administration, and that will depend on the state of the economy."
Unemployment remains high at 8.8 percent, home foreclosures are expected to continue at a high rate this year, $4-a-gallon gas has bruised consumer confidence, and voters are increasingly worried about deficits and the national debt. Overseas, the nation is embroiled in multiple unpopular wars. Bottom line: Obama may well find 2012 a tougher race than 2008, when he beat John McCain 53 percent to 46 percent. His 2008 electoral vote total was even more lopsided, at 365 to 173.
Going forward, subtract six electoral votes from Obama's total right off the top, because of population declines in states he won in 2008. This means he's down to 359 electoral votes if he wins all the same states again; 270 are needed for victory.
Obama can afford to lose some tossup states (see map), but not too many. His campaign has put out word that it is eyeing Texas, Arizona, and Georgia, according to Politico, owing to those states' growing Hispanic populations – a demographic that Obama won two-thirds of in 2008. But that is probably an attempt to get the Republicans to play defense and spend money on their home turf.
More likely, it is Obama who will be playing defense in many of the states he won in 2008. On their updated 2012 electoral map, Larry Sabato and his team at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics have Obama starting with 182 electoral votes in the states they label "safe Democratic," versus only 105 "safe Republican" electoral votes. When the likely Democratic and Republican states are added, the score gets a bit closer: 196 for Obama, 170 for the Republican. Include the "leaners," and it's 247 for Obama, 180 for the Republican. The tossup states account for 111 electoral votes.
Obama will have a hard time holding onto at least two of those tossup states – Indiana and North Carolina. Even a state like Wisconsin, which went for Obama by 14 points in 2008, will require work to hold onto, after a 2010 cycle that swung heavily Republican.
Virginia also goes onto many political analysts' "hard to hold" lists – but it may be that Ohio is harder to keep. After all, Obama won Virginia last time with 53 percent of the vote, and Ohio with only 51 percent. Both states had big Republican years in their latest statewide elections, but Virginia's economy is stronger.
Democrats are even mapping out paths to victory that do not include the two biggest tossup states, Florida and Ohio. Thus the Obama campaign's focus on Virginia, Nevada, and Colorado.
Yet Obama could even lose Virginia, along with Florida, Ohio, Indiana, and North Carolina, and still win the White House. "But nobody wants it to be that close," says a Democratic strategist speaking on background.
Another wild card that could sway a swing state – and a crucial demographic group – would be the selection of a Hispanic running mate on the Republican ticket. Three leading options are Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, Gov. Susana Martinez (R) of New Mexico, or Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) of Nevada.
Perhaps the most important demographic group of all heading into 2012 is independents – now more than a third of the electorate. Obama won a majority of independents in 2008, but they have abandoned him in droves since then. The latest Gallup poll, in which Obama tied his lowest overall job-approval rating at 41 percent, showed only a 35 percent job approval among independents.
So it comes as no surprise that Obama is hewing to positions that are popular with independents, such as favoring a tax increase on those earning more than $250,000 and opposing cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. The Republican budget plan for 2012 opposes any tax increases and proposes fundamental changes to the two big, publicly run health-insurance programs. That change would probably require seniors and the poor to shoulder a greater portion of their health costs.
With the budget plan, the GOP has served up a juicy target for Obama, and he has gone right after it. Republicans complained bitterly about the partisan tone of his big deficit-reduction speech on April 13, even as his liberal base applauded. Getting core Democrats mobilized for 2012 is important, too, after all. And Obama's suggestion for bipartisan collaboration in working out a deficit-reduction deal is music to independents' ears.
"Obama's ideas are good, but I want to see how they play out," says Joshua Risinger, a 19-year-old accounting student at Northern Virginia Community College, and a political independent. "The deficit is very important; it relates to my future."