A generic republican
Buenos Aires Herald, November 8, 2011
Several recent polls have shown that any “generic” Republican candidate would beat Barack Obama if the American presidential election was held this week. Unfortunately for Republicans, their candidate for next year’s election will not be as good as a “generic” candidate. Thus, the likelihood that Obama wins re-election will significantly increase when a real Republican is chosen to challenge Obama on November 6, 2012.
President Obama looks especially vulnerable given the sorry state of the American economy. His indecisiveness in dealing with the strong and dogmatic Republican majority in the House probably causes more concerns among those interested in getting Obama re-elected than the high unemployment and the disappointing economic growth. Showing political inexperience and some occasional naïveté, Obama has failed to satisfy his hardline democratic base as he has shown himself too weak in negotiating with Republicans and has alienated moderate voters with his lack of leadership. Not surprisingly, when polls asked about his chances against a “generic” Republican, Obama fails to attract enough support to secure re-election.
Though that would seemingly be good news for Republicans, those polls fail to reflect two key aspects that will be important in the rapidly approaching campaign season.
First, Republicans cannot have a generic candidate. They will name a real candidate with strengths and weaknesses, with a track record and policy positions. Given the names of Republican presidential hopefuls, the Republican choice will likely have more liabilities than assets in terms of electoral appeal. Be it because of his or her extreme rightwing views (in case Cain, Bachmann or Perry are chosen) or precisely because he will be casted by his rivals as a flip-flopper during the intense campaign weeks in early 2012 (if Rommey ends up being the candidate), the Republican nominee will start the campaign from a much weaker position than a “generic” candidate would. Obama’s large campaign funds will be generously used to highlight the weaknesses of the Republican nominee. The democratic strategy will be simple, but probably very effective. The message will be that Obama might be far from perfect, but the Republican candidate will be shown as much worse.
Second, the polls facing Obama against a generic candidate say much more about the level of dissatisfaction Americans have with Obama than about their real vote intentions in 2012. American elections are always about choosing from a limited pool of names. Despite how disappointed many Americans are with the Obama presidency, the next election will not be a referendum on Obama. As the weaknesses of Obama are well known and those of his adversaries are not yet identified, Obama now looks vulnerable. When Americans are forced to weight Obama against a real alternative, polls will truly reflect vote intention and not just presidential approval.
Since 1980, only two presidents have failed to win a second term, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H Bush in 1992.
In 1980, a complex mix of difficult economic conditions and the perception of weakening American power abroad conspired to put Carter in a vulnerable position. The fact that Republicans were able to come up with a very strong candidate helps explain why Carter lost. Granted, Carter’s own mistakes weakened his re-election chances, but Republicans named as candidate a great campaigner and a clever strategist. None of the candidates remaining in the Republican race has the strength of the attributes Reagan had in 1980. Thus, even if Obama might be even more vulnerable than Carter, Republicans are in a much worse shape than they were when the successfully unseated Carter in 1980.
In 1992, Bush also faced re-election under bad economic conditions, but his defeat was caused by his failure to uphold his “read my lips. No new taxes” promise. After he compromised with Democrats to a tax increase in 1990, Bush provoked uproar among conservatives. Texas billionaire Ross Perot entered the race as an independent, dividing the conservative vote and allowing Bill Clinton to win with only 43% of the national vote. Rather than a bad economy, divisions within the conservative camp explained Bush’s failure to win re-election. Obama is unlikely to face a challenge from a left-of-center independent candidate in 2012. If anything, a third party candidate is more likely to emerge from the right. If that happens, it will be even more difficult for Republicans to unseat Obama next year.
Since 1980, no incumbent president has had a guaranteed re-election a year ahead of Election Day. Reagan easily won in 1984 when the Democrats failed to nominate a competitive candidate. The same happened with Clinton in 1996. George W. Bush was able to win re-election in 2004 when Senator John Kerry badly managed his campaign after getting the Democratic nomination. Obama might be headed in the same re-election direction, despite the economic difficulties the country faces, as long as the Republicans continue to struggle to identify a strong candidate. If Republicans could find a candidate sufficiently strong as a “generic” candidate, they would win. Unfortunately, it seems increasingly likely that they will have to settle for much weaker real candidate.