So far the 2012 campaign has been surreal. Despite seeming unpopular and down during most of 2011, President Obama did not draw one serious primary challenger and now leads all Republican candidates in head to head polls. Given that his approval is still hovering around only 50% (though better than even a month ago), this has to give Democrats a sense that the tide has turned their way.
More telling is the nastiness and division of the Republican primary, and the way in which the appeal is to the right, not the middle. Even in the emotional Democratic primary of 2008 the competition ended up being for the moderates, not the base. This meant that except for an occasional gaffe, the soundbites and quotes coming out of the primary season were not particularly harmful to the candidate in the general election. The Republicans are competing to win the hearts and minds of conservatives, meaning that red meat rhetoric delicious to the tea party is standard fare. One can imagine Obama’s campaign scouring every speech and statement for something to use down the line. Moreover, current front runner (at least in the polls) Rick Santorum was quoted as saying that mainstream protestantism has left the ‘real’ Christian faith. Uh, OK…
It is to me virtually impossible to imagine Obama losing at this point IF the economy continues its upward tick. It looks like it will, at least long enough for Obama to benefit. Not only have the jobs numbers been improving, but leading economic indicators have been strong and consumer sentiment rising. These things feed in on themselves and don’t usually turn around on a dime, especially since it’s been private sector growth not government jobs such back in early 2011.
The Republicans, as I noted last week, have had a very dour and negative message, leaving them little to go on if the country looks to be rebounding. “We could have recovered quicker” is a clunker as a campaign slogan, after all! They had a negative message in 2010 that worked as the economy was bleak and people upset. That was in an off year election; 2012 is a whole different ball game.
But how might the campaign matter? The Vice Presidential choice is probably irrelevant. Rarely does a choice truly help a candidate, often (such as with Sarah Palin in 2008) it does real harm. Debates could matter, though Obama is already proven himself disciplined and effective, it would be hard for a Republican to really savage him in a debate. Outside interests spending massive amounts of money could matter — though there are signs that dirty politicking is less effective now than it used to be.
A third party candidate: A third party candidate or a serious independent (and there is still time) could be a game changer. Still, a third party challenger would be more likely to draw from voters skeptical about President Obama on the right than those on the left. A fiscal conservative focused on debt like Ross Perot was in 1992 could give Obama headaches on the budget, allowing the Republican and the independent to gang up on the President. Yet that would likely split the anti-Obama vote, especially if someone like Santorum is the nominee.
A major scandal: All administrations have little scandals, but so far the Obama administration has remained relatively untainted. Despite efforts to trumpet stimulus funds going to an energy company that ultimately went bankrupt, or to ask questions about what the Attorney General knew about a drug/gun case, no scandal has gained traction. But ask Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan – a scandal can su
Economy sours again: Three months ago I’d have said that Obama would have no chance if the economy doesn’t continue it’s recovery. Now, I’m not so sure. Given the weakness of the GOP candidates, Obama’s cash, the benefits of incumbency and the campaign machine’s prowess it would still be possible to win, even if unemployment lingers at 8:0 ro rises slightly. In that case the campaign would matter – at least to the extent Obama can keep victory a possibility. If Romney is the nominee and the economic recovery falters, it’s hard to see Obama winning. Against Santorum or Gingrich he’d have a chance even in a poor economy.
The “secret weapon”: When a country is losing a war, people often turn to hope of some secret weapon that will turn things around. Increasing the Republicans are talking about the possibility of a brokered convention, a new candidate emerging from the pack who can somehow bring everyone together – Jeb Bush (are you serious?), Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Marc Rubio or someone. The trouble is, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and even Newt once occupied that role. When they had to campaign for real, difficulties emerged. Perhaps there is a someone else who can overcome all the problems of the current candidates, but hoping for a brokered convention shows desperation.
As we drift towards March, the campaign is starting to get the feel of one where the incumbent will coast to victory — more like 1972, 1984, and 1996 then 1980 or 1992. Even if things go sour for the President, chances are that the election will be close, like 2004, when a relatively unpopular George W. Bush held off John Kerry — a man who made it through the Democratic primary season relatively unscathed that year.
Things can turn around, of course, but the drama in 2012 may be less about the Presidential election and more about who ends up controlling the House and Senate.