Republicans, who only weeks ago could not imagine how President Obama could be reelected, sure are trying hard to make it happen. Through 11 primaries and caucuses going into Super Tuesday, Mitt Romney had accumulated more delegates than Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul combined. Again on Tuesday night, among the 10 states voting or holding caucuses, Romney won more delegates than the other three candidates combined. There is no longer a plausible mathematical possibility for Santorum, Gingrich, or Paul to reach the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination; it is also too late for someone else to get into this race and win it. And yet, Republican voters seem either unwilling or incapable of bringing this to a close. Yes, Romney is winning, but in a politically debilitating way. His painful slog raises the question: Will he be in any shape to compete in the fall?
A long fight is not, by definition, destructive. The epic Barack Obama-Hillary Rodham Clinton battle was mean and personal. It came down to the final primaries in June. But it was very different from this fight, because it was much less about ideology. It was not really a contest to see who could outflank the other on the left; neither Obama nor Clinton needed to alienate the between-the-40-yard-lines independent voters who matter so much in presidential elections. It was more a fight over vision, generations, demographics, and style. It was more an internal party fight over personal preference. And neither of them appeared to be more electable in November than the other.
This fight is very different. This year, it seems that Republicans have become self-absorbed and obsessed with their conservative base. They seem unable to acknowledge or unwilling to care that the rest of the electorate is watching and getting turned off by overheated rhetoric almost guaranteed to alienate all but the most conservative voters.
At the start of this campaign, most independent voters, who generally follow politics less avidly than partisans do, saw Romney as something of a blank slate. Now, poll after poll shows that his numbers among independents have taken a beating. In an ABC News/Washington Post national survey earlier this month, Romney had a healthy 60 percent favorable and 29 percent unfavorable rating among Republicans. Among independents, it was 32 percent favorable and 48 percent unfavorable. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll among Republicans, 58 percent had a positive view of Romney, with 23 percent neutral and 18 percent negative. But among all voters, it was 28 percent positive, 28 percent neutral, and 39 percent negative. When this happens to the most “electable” candidate, it is not good for the party.
If you subscribe to the referendum school of presidential politics, as I do, you believe that when a president runs for a second term the election is first and foremost about the incumbent. It only becomes a choice election if the challenger is either an incredibly strong candidate or very polarizing. When that happens, the incumbent’s performance and the state of the nation, particularly the economy, no longer are the main focus.
In a general election, Santorum, Gingrich, or Paul would definitely be “choice” candidates: stark contrasts with Obama who probably wouldn’t work out so well for the GOP. Romney is conventional enough that an Obama-Romney fight would be more a referendum on Obama.
Romney has spent the last six months trying to be a hard-core, “severely conservative” ideologue. But he’s not very good at playing that role, simply because that’s not who he is. It requires far greater dramatic talent than Mitt Romney possesses to effectively pretend to be something he’s not. This is one reason why he has had such difficulty putting this nomination away. Quiet, mainstream competence is not a quality that Republicans are falling all over themselves to embrace in 2012, even if it’s undoubtedly the best ticket to winning over the key swing voters in the middle.
The economy is better than it was four months ago. Obama’s approval numbers, consumer confidence, and the key right-direction/wrong-track poll numbers are better than they were last fall. But if you just look at those metrics, Obama is anything but a cinch to win reelection. For the months of January and February, he averaged an approval rating of 45 percent and a disapproval rating of 47 percent. For the week of Feb. 27-March 4, Gallup gave him 45 percent approval and 48 percent disapproval. Yes, occasionally, there is a poll that shows him reaching 50 percent approval, with 45 percent disapproval, as the new NBC/WSJ poll did. But 50 percent approval is the bare minimum rating a president can have if he expects to be reelected.
Those numbers point to a situation where Obama’s odds of reelection are better than they were but not where they need to be. The only way you can pronounce Obama the favorite is to factor in the rather considerable damage that the GOP is inflicting on itself. And right now, Republicans don’t seem inclined to stop.
There are so many land mines between now and Election Day for Obama: Iran and Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East; the impact of Middle East troubles on oil and gasoline prices; the sovereign-debt crisis and recession in Europe; a global economic slowdown; and the possible collapse of a European financial institution or two. But when you look at what is happening on the Republicans’ side, you kind of wonder whether they want to win or are happier just fighting among themselves.
This article appears in the March 10, 2012, edition of National Journal.