It’s way too early to predict who will win this year’s presidential race, but the president undeniably enjoys several significant advantages—principally incumbency, money, and organization.
A presidential election generally is the incumbent’s to lose. If the economy seems to improving, risk-averse voters reason, “Why rock the boat by changing captains mid-course?” Ironically, the GOP’s capture of the House in 2010 strengthened Obama’s reelection prospects. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and company have blunted Obama’s economy-crushing “progressive” agenda, giving America’s talented entrepreneurs and managers enough breathing space to get the economy improving, albeit slowly.
An incumbent president, by the very nature of the office and its power, will be seen and heard by voters more than a challenger. He and his army of proxies can grab the media spotlight and dominate the news cycle by choosing when and where to announce or propose various policy initiatives. A recent example: In the last week of April, Obama visited college campuses to woo student votes with promises to keep the interest rate on federal student loans from rising. Vote for Santa!
Furthermore, a sitting president—especially one who has no compunctions about ignoring legislative and constitutional limits—can find ways to spend taxpayer dollars to curry favor with voters and boost his reelection campaign. One example of this is that Obama came up with $8 billion to patch over the hole he blew into the Medicare Advantage program until after the election. Even more influential is the potential payback from individual citizens who have received federal dollars during Obama’s first term. That would include some of the 5.4 million people who have signed up for disability since January 2009. (Does anyone really believe that one out of every 32 or 33 American workers has become permanently disabled in just three-plus years? This cries out for a congressional investigation.) Obama undoubtedly will reap additional grateful votes from the 23 percent increase in the number of Americans receiving payments from Uncle Sam on Obama’s watch. And don’t forget his $800 billion non-stimulating “stimulus” plan in 2009: Emulating the strategy that Franklin Delano Roosevelt employed in his 1936 reelection campaign, many recipients of those taxpayer-financed mega-bucks will certainly thank Obama at the polls this November.
When it comes to raising money, as we saw in 2008, Obama may have no equal. This year, his campaign is expected to raise a billion dollars. As of April 6, according to figures published in The Wall Street Journal, Obama had raised more than twice as much as Mitt Romney: $157.1 million to $73.7 million. The actual advantage is even greater, because Romney has had to spend a lot to win his party’s nomination, while Obama, running unopposed for his party’s nomination, has been able to conserve all his funds for the general election campaign. Thus, as per the same article, Obama led Romney in cash on hand: $84.7 million to $7.3 million.
Obama has history on his side, too. For years, Democrats receive the lion’s share of special interest campaign contributions. Data compiled and posted atOpenSecrets.org show that 19 of the 20 top dollar-volume special interest donors (most of them labor unions) give significantly more campaign contributions to Democrats.
That fund-raising advantage should be even more lopsided this year. Not only has Obama conferred huge favors on unions (GM, Chrysler, stimulus spending, NLRB appointments, exemptions from Obamacare, etc.) he has bestowed considerable largess on corporate rent-seekers, too. Obama may rally the anti-capitalist left in the party’s rank and file by bashing “rich corporations,” but he has doubled the budget of the Commerce Department, is seeking a 40 percent increase in funding for the Export-Import Bank, and has imposed regulations that disproportionately cripple smaller, newer businesses, so don’t be surprised if some big businesses overlook his anti-business rhetoric and send cash his way, either as payback or out of fear of antagonizing a president who doesn’t hesitate to reward his allies and punish his opponents every chance he gets.
Finally, in terms of organization, Obama has the best-positioned organizations firmly on his side—the government bureaucracies. While the average citizen is nonplussed at the absurdity and wastefulness of many duplicative agencies and programs in the federal government, Barack Obama will defend them vigorously from would-be budget-cutters. According to data from the General Accounting Office and the GSA’s Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, these programs are legion: 160 programs to support homeowners and renters; 209 for science, technology, engineering and math education; 94 for “green building;” 88 for economic development; 82 to improve teaching; 56 for financial literacy; 122 anti-poverty programs, etc. Each one of them will use taxpayer dollars on PR campaigns to toot their own horn, lobby for their own preservation, and advocate, justify, and defend ever-greater government intervention and control.
Both Milton and Rose Friedman, in Tyranny of the Status Quo, and James Bennett and Thomas DiLorenzo in Democracy Destroyed, described the “iron triangle” of federal agencies giving grants to nonprofit activist groups who lobby congress to increase spending on their pet cause, which results in increased budgets for the agencies, and the cycle then repeats itself. With Mitt Romney having promised to eliminate superfluous, duplicative, and ineffective government programs, the so-called “permanent government” of unelected bureaucrats will be working overtime (on taxpayer dollars) to defeat him.
Obama may also enjoy a huge institutional, as well as monetary, advantage over Romney by having the best-capitalized organization in the country in his corner: the Federal Reserve System. Of course, the Fed, as an institution, is not giving money to the Obama campaign; however, by using two rounds of quantitative easing to resuscitate the stock market and bail out Wall Street, and also by implementing the ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) to try to keep the economy on life support up to the election, Ben Bernanke has to be counted as a powerful ally of the president.
Clearly, Barack Obama enjoys some formidable advantages in his contest with Mitt Romney. Obama also has several distinct disadvantages: High “unfavorable” ratings in opinion polls; numerous broken promises and spectacularly brazen falsehoods that are part of the public record; and mostly, a dismal record highlighted (lowlighted?) by the weakest post-recession recovery in American history.
At this juncture, either candidate could win. It remains to be seen whether President Obama’s considerable advantages can overcome his significant disadvantages, and whether challenger Romney can overcome the incumbent’s advantages by presenting a convincing vision of a better way.
— Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com.