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.
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.