Obama remains favorite

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 8, 2011


Ten months before the presidential primary season kicks off, Republican presidential hopefuls are hesitating to enter a race that increasingly looks like an uphill battle. President Obama enjoys more support than any of the likely challengers among moderate voters and is far more popular than any of the Republican challengers among younger voters who normally stay away during midterm elections but who vote at higher rates in presidential elections.


Normally, presidential hopefuls announce the formation of exploratory committees before they formalize their plans. Exploratory committees allow hopefuls to set up their campaign organization and, in many states, to raise funds. In a typical election cycle, exploratory committees are formed around 24 months before the election. This year, so far only four exploratory committees in the Republican camp, three by unlikely presidential contenders. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the only serious candidate to have a committee.


The slow start of the race in the Republican Party is evident. In 2008, Obama announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination in February of 2006, when the field was already crowded with other democrats, including Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. In the 2004 presidential cycle—more appropriately comparable to the current cycle, when a sitting president seeks re-election—democratic challengers were already running and raising funds 10 months before the first presidential primary.


This time, Republicans are taking longer to formally announce. The primary season begins with the Iowa caucus on January 16, 2012. By March 6, 2012, 35 states will have held primaries, including California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois and Ohio. A year from now, Republicans will already have a presidential nominee for the November election.


There seems to be a contradiction between the harsh Republican rhetoric against Obama and the hesitance in entering the race.  Partially, the apparent indecisiveness on the part of Republican hopefuls responds to the long list of names of possible candidates. Because everyone knows that the list will shrink as the primary season approaches, presidential hopefuls would have an incentive to enter the race early to secure a spot in the final lineup.  However, because the long of list of contenders does not have a clear front runner, hopefuls are waiting for other people to make mistakes and take themselves out of the race before they enter the arena. Besides, candidates who enter the race first will quickly become the targets of the radical Republican rightwing seemingly more interested in verifying the conservative credentials of the candidates than on assessing their electability. 


Thus, because nobody has officially thrown his or her hat into the ring, the natural attrition in the list of presidential hopefuls that takes place in the first months of the campaign has not yet happened.  As in a marathon without a group of elite runners that breaks ahead of the rest, the Republican Party has seen the nomination process delayed in such a way that any lesser candidate can pull a huge surprise victory when the primary season begins in earnest after the summer.  The more the favorite candidates wait to formalize their announcements, the easier it will be for a lesser known challenger to contend in a leveled-playing field.


Another problem for Republicans is that there is no front-runner to run against. Unlike 2008, where Hillary Clinton was the obvious favorite in the Democratic Party, and all challengers—including Obama—could design a plan to run against her, Republicans do not know who they will end up running against for their party nomination. That discourages people from being the first to throw their hats into the ring.


Finally, there is the Obama factor.  The President is more popular today than Clinton and Reagan were at comparable times in their administrations. Moreover, unlike his predecessors who won re-election (Reagan, Clinton and Bush Jr.), Obama has had a steadier level of support. He has experienced less fluctuation in approval and disapproval than his predecessors. His likeability is high even among those who dislike his policies. His support is very strong among African Americans, a group that is expected to turnout enthusiastically again in 2012.  Obama also polls remarkably well among younger Americans, who are more likely to vote on presidential elections than on midterm or local contests. Thus, the likelihood that Republicans can pull another electoral victory in the upcoming presidential elections seems more difficult.


Polling shows that Obama would defeat any of the Republican contenders if the election were held today. True, these polls are not good predictors of what will happen in 19 months, especially when Republicans don’t yet have a nominee. However, polls confirm that Obama is a sufficiently popular president and history has taught us that he is a formidable campaigner, with a unique ability to raise funds and get sympathizers involved.


The campaign season should have already started. The fact that so many Republican presidential hopefuls are hesitant is an indication that they perceive Obama being much stronger and more difficult to defeat than their harsh rhetoric and extensive battery of criticisms would otherwise seem to indicate.