WASHINGTON – A growing chorus of once-confident Democrats now say President Barack Obama could lose the November election.
The hand-wringing reflects real worries among Democrats about Obama’s ability to beat Republican rival Mitt Romney, who has proven to be a stronger candidate than many expected. But it’s also a political strategy aimed at rallying major donors who may have become complacent.
Interviews with a dozen Democratic strategists and fundraisers across the country show an increased sense of urgency among Obama backers. It comes after a difficult two weeks for the president, including a dismal report on the unemployment picture, a Democratic defeat in the Wisconsin governor recall election and an impressive fundraising month for Romney and Republicans.
“We’ve all got to get in the same boat and start paddling in the same direction, or we’re going to have some problems,” said Debbie Dingell, a Democratic National Committee member and the wife of Michigan Rep. John Dingell.
“We can’t take this for granted,” said Peter Burling, a DNC member from New Hampshire. “I intend to be running scared from now until November.”
These worries also have prompted some second-guessing of an Obama campaign operation once perceived as run by disciplined message specialists. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and former Clinton adviser James Carville this week wrote that Obama’s efforts to convince voters that economic conditions are moving in the right direction aren’t swaying people.
“We will face an impossible head wind in November if we do not move to a new narrative,” the strategists wrote.
Former Democratic Party chairman Don Fowler faulted the Obama camp for not laying more blame on Republicans for the slow economic recovery.
“The Obama campaign should make it clear whose fundamental fault the economic problems are, and they’ve chosen not to do that,” he said, echoing an argument made by other Democrats. “Not doing that, they forfeit an argument, a strategy, a technique toward making the Republicans bear responsibility for these problems.”
Some Democrats hope the deepening concern among some party faithful could lead to an increase in fundraising.
The mighty Obama and DNC fundraising operation fell behind Romney and Republicans in May, with the GOP team raising $76 million compared to the $60 million haul for the president and Democrats. And the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action has lagged far behind Republican-leaning outside groups, in part because of what senior strategist Bill Burton said was a sense of complacency among Democratic donors.
“Democrats have to know that the president is up against a well-financed opponent in a tough political environment,” said Burton, a former White House aide. “If everyone doesn’t join the fight, he could be defeated.”
The Obama campaign itself has also been sounding the alarm.
“If there’s anyone still out there acting like we have this thing in the bag, do me a favor and tell them they’re dead wrong,” Ann Marie Habershaw, the campaign’s chief operating officer, wrote in a blog post last week.
And campaign manager Jim Messina warned that GOP success in the Wisconsin recall, aided by independent group spending, confirmed that “all the outside money that’s poured into elections this cycle can and will change their outcome.”
“And it’s exactly what could happen on the national stage unless we can close the gap between special interests and ordinary people,” he said.
In 2004, it was the Democrats who had the big money operation on their side. Groups like America Coming Together and the Media Fund raised about $200 million to help John Kerry’s presidential campaign with grass-roots organizing and advertising. But the donors who helped that effort – financier George Soros, film producer and donor to liberal causes Steve Bing and billionaire Peter Lewis – have vastly reduced their political participation or stayed away all together this time.
Democratic operatives say the long and combative Republican primary left some in their own party overconfident. Obama supporters expected Romney to emerge from the GOP contest bruised by attacks from his party and pigeonholed by his attempts to placate conservatives by shifting to the right on everything from immigration to foreign policy.
But five months from Election Day, several national polls show Obama and Romney locked in a tight race, as voters vent their frustrations over the nation’s economic woes. May figures showed that employers created a meager 69,000 jobs and the jobless rate ticked up to 8.2 percent. And this week, the Federal Reserve released data showing that median family net worth shrank in 2010 to levels not seen since 1992 after adjusting for inflation.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said the president’s team “always anticipated this would be a close and competitive election.”
But some strategists worry that time is running short. While many Democrats believe party loyalists will get more engaged as the election draws closer, other operatives say the terms of the election will be set over the next two months.
“This can’t wait until September,” said Steve Rosenthal, president of the Organizing Group, a Democratic-leaning consulting firm
Rosenthal issued his own warning on Obama’s re-election prospects in an online column headlined “President Obama Can Lose: Now is the Time for Democratic Donors to Step Up in a Big Way.”
In an interview Wednesday, Rosenthal said Obama’s populist State of the Union address and Romney’s initial troubles securing the Republican nomination created a false sense of euphoria among Democrats. But he said that sentiment ignored the fact that the country is still evenly divided, that the president does not hold a lead in all battleground states and that Obama this time does not have the 2-1 edge in money that he had over John McCain in 2008.
“They have such a huge financial advantage and with the economy teetering, it’s frightening,” Rosenthal said of Republicans. “I hate to say it comes down to money, but it does.”
Don Peebles, a New York-based real estate developer and Obama fundraiser, said that while Democratic complacency has been hard to shake this cycle, he expects more urgency this summer.
“There’s definitely a sense among the financial supporters of the president that we need to get more engaged and redouble our efforts to make sure that he has the resources he needs,” Peebles said.