Right now, the consensus of the political cognoscenti has President Obama winning re-election, although his margin of victory will be smaller than it was in 2008. There is a chance that he'll lose the national popular vote, in which case Republicans would immediately and without any historical reflection brand him as an unelected president with no mandate, and Democrat might wryly remark that Americans got the president they deserve.
But let's say Gov. Mitt Romney ekes out wins in virtually every battleground state. What will Democrats say to make themselves feel better about themselves the next day?
1. The economy just sucked. It was too badly broken for Obama to fix it, or his solutions (targeting banks early on but not forcing them to help ordinary people more) were not sufficient. In retrospect, how could a president possibly win re-election with unemployment this high and with a stream of forecasts about anemic growth over the next year?
2. A miscalculation about Romney. I've sketched this idea before — that by not painting Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper, and instead casting him as an out-of-touch plutocrat, the Obama campaign lost the ability to call out his late-in-the-campaign transfiguration into William Weld. Also, voters simply don't trust presidential flip-flopper aspirants. The Mitt Romney voters saw in the debate wasn't the guy who they'd heard about.
3. Obama fatigue. As much as they liked him personally, they look back at his presidency and feel a struggle. It's hard to look back at the last four years and smile; his presidency, through maybe no fault of his own, really, was necessary to get the country back on track, but he had to do a lot of things that were very unpopular, and because he governed from principle, and not politics, he paid a price for it.
4. Republicans tried to suppress the vote and although they failed to change laws, they created a climate of fear that suppressed minority turnout in key states.
5. Those hit hardest by the Great Recession were coincidentally the major constituents of the Obama coalition. Single women. Minorities. Hispanics. Younger voters. They didn't turn out in numbers sufficient enough for Obama to win.
6. Racism. Angry whites gave Obama a shot and he failed, and they just couldn't bear the thought of another term. Republican obstructionists made it impossible for Obama to do anything in Congress.
7. Obama was a Bush clone in too many ways. He had a bankers-first economic policy. He bought into GOP ideas about deficits and debt, thereby taking the issue off the table for Democrats. He compromised so much on health care that it blurred the differences between the two parties. He had no real plan for the next four years to speed up economic growth.
8. The idea that Obama could have and should have done better, even given all the circumstances he had. His failed to live up to his promises to change Washington. He was not the Obama people voted for in 2008; he couldn't possibly be that person.
Some of these might be valid. Others are curdled milk. But if Obama loses, you'll hear them all.