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Jay Cost has some sober words on the 2012 prospects of Obama as the Democrat base increasingly talks about a primary challenge and Republicans resist the temptation of overconfidence:

But when it comes to our approach to national politics, it’s vital to remember the political strength this president still enjoys. Nationwide, the country remains evenly split on evaluations of President Obama’s job performance, with a slight tilt toward the negative. The RealClearPolitics job approval average, linked above, has actually found a marginal softening on the disapproval number in the weeks since Election Day, while the approval number has been consistently between 45 and 47 percent. Neither the Gallup nor the Rasmussen daily tracking polls show much change over the course of the last few weeks on either the approval or disapproval side. All in all, this suggests that President Obama’s long slide in approval ratings — going from the mid-60s at the time of the inauguration to the mid-40s by this summer — has finally halted. He has hit some kind of floor.

And while the floor is below the reelection threshold, it is not very far underneath it. It would not take a huge shift in public opinion to get him back on his feet. This points to a general political rule of thumb that I think Obama himself — or at least many Democrats — overlooked in their evaluations of the 2008 election results. It was certainly the best victory a Democrat has had since 1964, but a shift of 4.8 million votes (or just 3.6 percent of the entire electorate) would have given John McCain a popular vote majority, despite the fact that President George W. Bush’s job approval rating at the time was just 28 percent. The American party system in the last 20 years has seemingly settled into a battle in which neither side does better than 55 percent or worse than 45 percent. That means, in turn, that victory only ever depends on peeling away no more than 5 percent of the total electorate from the other side. Not an easy feat, of course, but by no means impossible.

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Republicans should assume that the macro conditions in 2012 will favor a 50-50 split in the electorate. Then, they should ask: what actions can they take to tip it to 51-49, and they should really not expect to defeat President Obama by much more than that.

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