Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Looking ahead to 2012 (already?)

Barack Obama isn't even halfway through his first term, and politicos across the country have already started talking about the Republicans who will try to replace him in 2012. Consequently, I've compiled an analysis of where the GOP primary race stands, and how it will change over the next two years. Of course, there are several unresolved variables which could profoundly impact the 2012 election, and this post will attempt to identify and examine as many as possible.

The chief variable looking toward 2012 will be, of course, the state of the economy in two years. A June poll showed most Americans still blame President Bush for the majority of the country's economic problems, but that blame will continue to swing toward President Obama if unemployment does not begin to fall. This raises the question of whether Republicans have a vested interest in preventing economic recovery, though that's another blog post entirely.

Another variable will be the levels of voter enthusiasm on both sides. While campaigns spend much time, money and energy attracting independents, such efforts are useless if the base doesn't turn out. Currently enthusiasm is at an all-time high among Republicans, while Democratic excitement seems to have stagnated somewhat after many supporters realized President Obama is not, in fact, a magician. As it stands now, Democrats need to fire themselves up before election day 2012, while Republicans must maintain their enthusiasm for two more years. A great many factors will affect voter enthusiasm on both sides; some of which will be addressed here.

A potentially huge variable involves the Tea Party, a voting bloc which Sarah Palin and Ron Paul will almost certainly split much of in the primaries. This may swing the results toward a more moderate candidate like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, similar to what happened in 2008 with John McCain. As with McCain, however, the nomination of a relative moderate may depress voter enthusiasm among the most conservative factions of the party and harm turnout. It could even lead to a Tea Party push for Palin or Paul to run as a third-party candidate, a possibility which cannot be discounted in light of a February poll which found 35% of respondents believe a third political party is needed. However, an official Tea Party candidate on the ballot would likely swing the general election to Obama, as Theodore Roosevelt did for Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

A more local variable is the possible election of Nikki Haley to the South Carolina governor's mansion. Because every GOP presidential nominee since 1980 has first won the South Carolina primary, the support of a Republican governor in the Palmetto State could go a long way toward deciding the eventual nominee -- especially with the primary's "first in the South" status. If Haley becomes governor she will owe her election largely to Sarah Palin (with a little help from Will Folks), though Haley also campaigned with Romney. Pawlenty and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have become dark horses in the fight over Haley's 2012 endorsement, courting her favor recently with post-primary political donations and campaign appearances. Additionally, Haley's Indian heritage could play a factor in an endorsement of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, though given South Carolina's traditionally conservative views on race, a Jindal endorsement could end up backfiring on both of them. Regardless, support from a Governor Haley may have a great deal of influence on the Republican primary, statewide as well as nationally.

In April, FiveThirtyEight compiled and analyzed all available polls regarding 2012 primary matchups, and found the only candidate who can currently beat Obama is not a candidate at all, but an anonymous "generic Republican" with a scant 1.9-point lead over the president. The next closest GOP hopeful was Romney, possibly because he's somewhat of a generic Republican himself. Even so, FiveThirtyEight currently projects Obama to beat Romney by 5.6 points. The next candidates are Mike Huckabee with a 6.6-point deficit, Ron Paul at 9.9 points behind Obama, Newt Gingrich at 12.2 points behind, and Jeb Bush at 13.4 points behind. The kicker is Obama's matchup with Sarah Palin, which shows the president beating the self-proclaimed "mama grizzly" by 14.4 percent -- over twice as high as the final margin between Obama and John McCain. Pawlenty and Jindal were not included in the analysis, which is unfortunate because I consider them both to be much stronger candidates than Bush or Palin.

When discussing Romney, it bears mentioning that I was rather surprised when McCain didn't pick the former Massachusetts governor as his running mate, and continue to believe a McCain-Romney ticket would have fared better than with Palin as number two. Romney was far more adept at economic issues than Palin (or even John "strong fundamentals" McCain, for that matter), but everyone believed the Iraq war would be the main campaign issue until Lehman Brothers went bankrupt on September 15. If it had gone under three weeks earlier, before McCain announced his running mate on August 29, things could have gone very differently in November. Romney has stayed largely out of the national spotlight since his 2008 defeat, which may work to his advantage among independents as the Boehner/Limbaugh-led Republicans in Congress continue to push the bounds of right-wing rhetoric.

However, Romney's Mormon faith will be a tricky issue. The religion gap between the parties has widened in every election cycle since 1972,* and today's GOP has effectively become the first religious party in the nation's history. Christian conservatives are an integral part of the Republican voting bloc -- some would say the integral part -- and it may be difficult for your average Southern Baptist to reconcile their faith with a candidate whose sacred text was literally read out of a hat, who believes the Second Coming will take place in Independence, Missouri, and whose ancestors were polygamists. That could depress enthusiasm and turnout among the party's main supporters, likely hurting Romney in both the primaries and even a general election matchup. After all, Republicans effectively opened the door on religion-based attacks, hammering Obama over Jeremiah Wright in the 2008 campaign and beyond.

Another interesting note on Romney's faith includes Glenn Beck, who is also a Mormon. While Beck hasn't publicly discussed his religion in great detail (that I know of), he would almost be forced to address the issue if Romney's Mormonism becomes a focus of the campaign. Beck has expressed his admiration for Palin on numerous occasions, and it's likely he will continue to support her. There's always the chance he supports Romney and publicly defends their faith, however, which has the possibility to further marginalize Beck and actually hurt Romney's general election chances.

Mike Huckabee seems to have found a pretty good gig with Fox News, and it's so far unclear whether he'll even run in 2012. The Washington Post has a decent roundup of how Huckabee's pre-primary maneuvering and fundraising differs from more assured candidates, as well as some of the issues a Huckabee bid would face.
Huckabee had the social conservative field virtually to himself in 2008. ... It's hard to imagine Huckabee having such a clear run in 2012. The field remains too fluid to make hard and fast predictions about who might compete with him for the votes of social conservatives. But Pawlenty, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Texas Gov. Rick Perry would all try to co-opt Huckabee's support in this critical voting bloc if they ran.
There's also Huckabee's ill-fated pardon of Maurice Clemmons, which provides a Willie Horton-type opportunity for Huckabee's opponents that may prove difficult to overcome. In addition, Huckabee's somewhat controversial views on homosexuality might prove disadvantageous in light of widespread support for the repeal of Don't Ask/Don't Tell and growing acceptance of same-sex marriage.

Much ado was made about a recent Rasmussen poll showing Ron Paul nearly even with Obama. FiveThirtyEight chalked it up to Rasmussen's significant Republican house effect, but another misleading factor is that Paul was the only challenger discussed in the poll. This makes the poll far more indicative of Obama's approval rating than any sort of popular support for Paul.

That being said, Ron Paul could still have a significant impact on the 2012 race. As mentioned above, Paul will undoubtedly split at least part of the Tea Party vote with Sarah Palin in the primaries. He's been gaining followers since 2008, but his movement is still probably not strong enough to win the primary outright. Even if he does somehow take the GOP nomination, I still believe he has a very small chance of winning a general election.

There's also the possibility, as I mentioned above, that Paul will lose the primary, but his supporters will convince him to run as an independent Tea Party-affiliated candidate. The independent support and private money needed to make it to November as an independent would be considerable, but perhaps not impossible given the current political climate. The only question, however, is whether Paul would be willing to leave the Republican Party. He would have to give up his seat in Congress anyway, so he would not be risking the ire of House GOP leaders. I currently think Paul is less likely to run as a third-party candidate than Palin, but I wouldn't exactly be surprised if he got swept up in the Tea Party movement. As I mentioned before, however, I think Paul's independent candidacy would split the conservative vote and help Obama considerably.

Newt Gingrich could have a legitimate shot at both the presidency, though his somewhat high unfavorables might make things difficult. Gingrich certainly has experience taking on a combined Democratic White House and Congress, having led the 1994 Republican takeover of the House. His move to impeach and prosecute President Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal was very unpopular, however, especially with the retrospective revelation that Gingrich was carrying on an affair of his own at the same time.

Certainly, Gingrich's personal life could lead to his downfall in the primary or general election. George W. Bush owed his electoral victories (especially in 2004) largely due to middle-class women, particularly those married with children.* It's difficult to imagine the family values types getting particularly excited about a candidate who's had three wives and a sex scandal, especially up against a (presumably) happily married father of two.

When it comes to Jeb Bush's chances for 2012, only one thing needs to be said: Does anyone really think America is likely to elect a third Bush in three decades?

Which brings us to former half-term governor, bestselling pseudo-author, cable talking head and reality TV star Sarah Palin. It's interesting that such a conservative and media darling gets even less support than a Bush, though perhaps not surprising when viewing the rate at which the number of people who see Palin as fit for the presidency has steadily dropped since she strolled onto the national scene in August 2008. It's somewhat unlikely that Palin could win the Republican nomination, and borderline ludicrous that she could win a general election. But hey, maybe we'll all be surprised by the power of Facebook. In any case, Palin comes off as more likely to run as a third-party candidate than Paul -- she would have more of a chance of winning (though that's not saying much), and her experience on the national stage leads me to believe she'd take the opportunity if she sees it. Additionally, ads like Mama Grizzly suggest she's already be targeting the bloc of conservative mothers that helped George W. Bush win reelection.

I have left two of the biggest variables for last -- Tim Pawlenty and Bobby Jindal -- because I currently view them as both wild cards in the 2012 Republican primary as well as potentially strong candidates in a general election against Obama. Jindal, though he was ridiculed for his response to Obama's State of the Union Address, has seen a remarkable upswing in approval rating since the gulf oil crisis. I'm honestly skeptical that the GOP would nominate an Indian-American to challenge an African-American for president, especially with Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele's race awkwardly preventing his removal. If Republicans are given the benefit of the doubt, however, and depending on how the oil spill is resolved, I think Jindal may be able to give Obama a fight.

I consider Tim Pawlenty to be somewhat of a strong candidate simply because few of the other Republican candidates strike me as capable of winning both the primary and the general election. Because Pawlenty is relatively unknown, which could work to his advantage if he is able to successfully manicure his image and gain enough support before the campaign begins. Still, Pawlenty's high unknown levels also work against him in the GOP primary, so the governor may never even get the chance to try.

Of course, so many things can happen between now and the 2012 primary season that this analysis may be rendered totally obsolete by then. Different projections for the general contest range from Obama's guaranteed reelection to, uh, Obama suspending the election and declaring martial law. So, I'm pretty confident my analysis will be somewhere closer to reality than either, but I'm also interested in your input. Any discussion on the analysis or other variables which may affect the primary and general election is welcomed in the comments section.

* From American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips

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