Republicans in the hunt

Will 2012 be the year of Obama’s undoing?

In the next few months, at last we will know who the 2012 Republican presidential nominee will be. And within a year’s time, we’ll know whether this candidate was able to end the Obama team’s dreams of re-election.

In the autumn of 2007, I was plugging away on the Hillary Clinton residential campaign and contemplating the possibilities of what a second Clinton White House would look like. Many of us on the campaign viewed Senator Barack Obama as a mere nuisance. Someone not ready for the big leagues and above all, someone who could talk the talk but surely not walk the walk.

Several months later, we soon realised that it was Mr Obama, not Mrs Clinton, who was walking to victory as the Democratic presidential nominee and then elected the 44th President of the United States.

The lesson all of us learned from the campaign is that in presidential politics, the unexpected happens more times than not.

Four years later, and now in London with the benefit of an outsider’s view, this mood seems all too familiar again. It is the Republicans who feel that President Obama is big on talk and short on answers and unlikely to win his race.

The Republican presidential candidates point to plenty of evidence beyond ideology to feel this way and get plenty of encouragement from the public to articulate it. A November Gallup poll shows that only 19 per cent of Americans are satisfied with the way their nation is being governed, while 81 per cent are dissatisfied.

These numbers don’t spell good news for the President or his chances of re-election. Unless the economy and voter sentiment improve, these historically low polling numbers suggest a Republican victory, no matter who the GOP ultimately nominates.

And it is not just polling numbers that are troubling the Obama White House. A recent analysis in the Financial Times noted that the average US consumer confidence index when a president wins re-election is 95. When a president runs and loses, it’s 76. Today’s number is 55. The piece concluded that if this projection were to hold next year, Obama will have to improve the confidence index by more than 20 points – just to hit the average loser’s level!

But as the evidence starts to mount against an Obama re-election, Republicans have not yet coalesced behind a credible nominee.
The Republican front-runner seems to shift each and every week. Michele Bachmann was the delight of the Tea Party last spring. Rick Perry was a conservative’s conservative over the summer. Herman Cain reopened the big tent in the autumn. But each one of these candidates has been the victim of their own undoing.

Mitt Romney is to many observers the safe choice for the nomination. His past experience as the governor of Massachusetts, CEO of an investment firm and his 2008 run for the presidency gave him valuable experience and political support to secure the nomination.

But for many Republican activists, they would be happy with “anyone but Mitt” as their presidential candidate. He has never averaged more than 25 per cent of Republican support in national polling. He has switched his views on many litmus test issues for conservatives, including abortion and government-run health care, raising doubts for many about his conservative credentials.

It is Romney’s record on health care, an issue which took over much of Obama’s first two years in office and gave birth to the Tea Party, which has caused the biggest problems for his campaign. While governor of Massachusetts, Romney enacted major health care reform with principles that the Obama plan was later modelled on. Opposition to ObamaCare in 2009/10 has turned into opposition to RomneyCare in 2011/12.

With Republicans failing to support their supposed frontrunner, Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, now sits atop the Republican polls. Over the next few weeks we’ll see whether Gingrich can hold onto his frontrunner status or will fade as Bachman, Perry and Cain did before him.

Gingrich is certainly not new to the national political scene. Anyone who follows US politics will remember the highs and lows of his time in the spotlight in the 1990s. But his own faults appear as strengths when compared against his competition.

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times recently wrote that Gingrich looks authentic next to Mitt Romney, faithful next to Cain and intellectual next to Bachmann and Perry.

Despite these comparisons, Romney still seems to be the best bet to win. Romney is and remains the most consistent performer and has maintained significant numbers in poll after poll.

But with Gingrich now polling above 30 per cent and leading the field, and with the first presidential contests in Iowa and New Hampshire just weeks away, Gingrich may have the drive to keep going well into the New Year and the discipline not to self-destruct like previous frontrunners.

The next few weeks will see the campaign move into high gear as voting begins. The campaigns will engage each other much more directly and the Romney campaign, which has been to turn negative against the Republican field, has begun to engage Gingrich directly.

Once the nomination is resolved, voters will turn their attention to the General Election and are still likely to be dissatisfied with the president’s performance. Obama’s approval rating among the key independent constituency stands near a dangerously low 30 per cent. And whilst a majority of voters prefer a generic Republican candidate over Obama, the president beats every current Republican contender in a head-to-head poll.

Should Gingrich continue down the path he is on and win the nomination, he may do Obama’s work for him by scaring off independents and sending them back to Obama. The president’s lead over Gingrich in the polls — seven points — is exactly the margin of victory that he had over McCain.

While Obama is unlikely to maintain that margin of victory, we do know that the presidential race will be a hard fought race and that what holds today may unexpectedly change tomorrow.

Peter Kelley is a Researcher in Portland’s International Affairs team. He previously worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and for Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa.