HOPE AND CHANGE: FOR REPUBLICANS IN 2012
Some political commentators have concluded that because of what has been described as a "weak field" of Republican candidates, the powers of incumbency, and the 2008 coalition of Obama voters (minorities, women, youth, unions), Obama will prevail once again. This is entirely possible but certainly not at this stage inevitable. The political landscape has dramatically changed since Obama offered "hope and change" to a Bush weary, war weary, economically distressed nation.
The economy is still the number one issue. Despite the "official" end of the recession, and the recovery of the stock market, unemployment remains close to 9% and the housing market shows few signs of recovery. While overall inflation remains low, gas and food prices are rising rapidly. A recent poll (Wash. Post/ABC News) found that only 42% of respondents approved of Obama's handling of the economy while 57% disapproved. Meanwhile the U.S. military is still deployed in Iraq which is suffering from daily sectarian violence and the war in Afghanistan drags on while U.S. casualties mount. After two and a half years, Obama "owns" both the wars and the economy. "It's Bush's fault", while still the preferred response of the Administration and the Democrat Party, no longer resonates with the public at large. This is reflected in three important non-candidate specific poll numbers (Gallup 4/11) which are important for Obama's reelection prospects.
Fully 66.5% of the poll respondents think that the "direction of the country is on the wrong track". Without a dramatic improvement before the Fall of 2012, a reincarnation of then candidate Reagan's question to the voters during his debate with incumbent president Jimmy Carter could be powerful: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
The diminished effectiveness of the "I inherited these problems from Bush." claim is further shown by Obama's job approval rating which is just 41.0% approving (Gallup: 4/11) and 50.%% disapproving (WaPo/ABC News: 47% -50%). Evan approval among the fast growing Hispanic minority, thought to be a Democrat stronghold, was 65% in January, 2010 but now is down to 54%. Approval among non-Hispanic whites is just 39%. Perhaps even more troublesome for Obama is the fact that both major parties are minority parties making the "independent vote" crucial. In the WaPo/ABC News poll, 41% of respondents self identified as "independents" (32% Democrat: 22% Republican). The Gallup poll found Obama's job approval among independents is down to 35%.
Finally, in spite of the "weak Republican field", no Republican front runner, and no formal campaigning, in a poll against an "unnamed" Republican candidate, Obama only leads by 2.8% with far less than a majority (43.6% to 40.8%).
Another important change in the political landscape occurred in the 2010 elections. Republicans made numerous gains in governorships, state legislatures and of course the Congress. The change in the states does not bode well for Obama to the extent that it reflects a shift in the policy preferences of the voters and also leaves Republican campaign organizations up and running for 2012. Now twenty-six state legislatures are under the control (both houses) of Republicans. In twenty-one of those states the governors are Republicans essentially giving Republicans control of their state governments. These twenty-one states will have a total of 242 electoral votes in the 2012 presidential election. Democrats control the governments (governor plus legislatures) in just eleven states with 136 electoral votes. Although Oregon, New York and Rhode Island have legislatures split between Republican and Democrat control, these states have been reliably Democrat states in presidential elections but with their electoral votes included as well as the automatic Democrat Washington D.C.,, the electoral vote total of the group is just 179. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. This is not to say that control of state governments is an absolute predictor of voting patterns in presidential elections but it is a fact which provides certain advantages and shows a trend in ideological orientation which is no doubt worrisome to the recently reorganized Obama campaign.
Thus Obama has some significant problems to overcome. Besides the wars, oil and food prices, and the epidemic of lost equity in the nation's homes, there is the general unpopularity of Obama's signature legislative proposal, the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, "ObamaCare". Then there is the uncertainty of future governments in the Middle East currently faced with, or already overthrown by, popular uprisings. The evolution of anti-American or Islamist governments would cause more instability in oil markets and the impression of increased American vulnerability.
So in the face of all these issues, is a Republican victory in 2012 a high probability? Not really. Events, especially an improving economy, over the next eighteen months can have tremendous influence and Obama has a number of things going for him. Besides the "weak Republican field", a concerted effort could reenergize the essential elements of the victorious 2008 Democrat coalition, women, young voters, blacks, Hispanics and organized labor. Also, the recently passed Republican budget authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan is politically risky in that it proposes major changes in the Medicare system which the Democrats have claimed will make health care for millions of seniors unaffordable. Even though this provision and much of the rest of the Republican budget will not pass the Democrat controlled Senate, this will be used by Democrats as a threat to seniors if the Republicans were to take control of the Senate and win the White house.
Thus, barring major unforeseen events, the door to the White House is ajar for the Republicans. The election outcome will probably depend on the identity and credibility of the Republican candidate, the efficiency of that candidate's campaign and its ability to attract independent voters with alternative policies, not just simple condemnations.
The campaign/nominating process is unfolding slowly. Preference polls among Republican voters are not definitive because of the large number of possible candidates who are included and the early date. However, in most polls, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney leads but with only about 16% of voter support. As the number of candidates is reduced a clearer picture of the front runners will appear. Current runner-ups include Mike Huckabee who doesn't appear to be running, Sarah Palin who also doesn't appear to be running, and Tim Pawlenty who is running but hasn't generated much support. Other candidates are now still in the "dark horse" category.
The current media speculation is now dominated by the announced "possible/probable" candidacy of billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump who in early polls has entered the contest as an initial choice of 8% of the Republican poll respondents. Eight percent is not usually a cause for celebration but it is newsworthy by the fact that Trump jumped over other commonly mentioned candidates like Huckabee and Sarah Palin (6% and 5% respectively).
The early "support" for Trump is shaking heads in both the Democrat and Republican establishments but it is difficult to take his candidacy seriously. Trump is the "anti-candidate"; his lack of political experience, flamboyant lifestyle, and reckless outspokenness defy the conventionally accepted need for political “gravitas” in presidential candidates. However his current popularity is likely based on these same characteristics. A non-politician who is unabashed in his criticism of the political status quo has definite appeal to frustrated voters. It is a fan based phenomena in which people are attracted to style over substance; where unconventional, especially combative, behavior becomes entertainment. It's the Palin model and with a "Lady Gaga Light" hair style, a third wife twenty-four years his junior, a billionaire's history of financial success mixed with intermittent real estate venture bankruptcies, Trump certainly adds color to an otherwise conventionally drab slate of possible candidates.
But as the leader of the nation and the industrialized world Trump would be the proverbial "loose cannon". Compromise and shared decision making in a system of divided government would be a foreign concept to him, and relations with Congress would be almost impossible. Dealing with foreign nations like China and Russia would not be possible based on bluster and threats. A sample of his "shoot from the lip" thinking is his assertion that as President he would put "a 25% tax (tariff) on all Chinese imports. Setting aside the facts that Congress would need to authorize this, and it would be a violation of World Trade Organization agreements to which both the U.S. and China are obligated, a 25% increase in the cost of billions of dollars worth of Chinese made goods in American stores would put a real dent in "The Donald's" popularity. Also, imposing high tariffs against exporting countries always brings about retaliation and in spite of the huge imbalance in U.S. trade with China, in 2010 the U.S. exported $91.9 billion worth of manufactured goods to China, exports which would be rendered non-competitive by a retaliatory increase in tariffs on China's part and overtime would result in significant job losses in the U.S. Simply put, Trump could not "fire" Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao or Russian President Medvedev if they didn't cooperate in whatever simplistic vision he has for restoring America's image in the world.
Trump clearly needs expert advice in foreign policy and international economics. His equally bizarre claim that he would "take" Iraq's oil reveals the same preference for bluster over political and military realities. After an initial burst of support from entertained voters who like his "finger in the eye" approach to their ideological opponents and wishy-washy members of their own party, these "fans" will likely come to see that what works in the private and publicly unaccountable realm of extreme wealth and high finance is not applicable to the slow moving, give and take of domestic politics, relations with sovereign nations and the responsibilities of governance. At best, if he runs, Trump will fade quickly after early primaries. At worst he will disrupt and distract the more serious discussions and debates important to the selection of credible Republican candidate.
The political landscape at this early stage is beneficial to a credible Republican challenge. Republican primary voters will have to keep the general election and independent voters in mind when picking a candidate. In the 1964 presidential election, "Mr. Conservative" and Republican candidate Barry Goldwater famously said: "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." Goldwater won 6 six states with 52 electoral votes.