It’s misleading to say that the state of the economy determines whether a president will win reelection. But it is fair to say that when a White House incumbent is running for a second term, the election is first and foremost a referendum on that president; the single most important factor that voters consider in assessing a president is the state and direction of the economy. That is the default factor unless something happens to shift a race’s dynamic and make the election more like a choice than a referendum. At least, that’s what I’ve always thought.
We do not know what the state and direction of the economy will be next fall. Without a doubt, the picture is better today than it was four or eight months ago. Still, very smart economists have widely divergent views on where the economy will be then. If the election were a referendum on President Obama and the economy four or eight months ago, he would have lost. If it were a referendum on Obama and the economy almost two weeks ago—when his approval rating tipped up to 48 and 49 percent in the Gallup Poll, and 50 percent in ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, and CNN surveys—he probably would have won. (His Gallup numbers have since trended downward to 44 percent; the decline likely reflects more attention on rising gasoline prices.)
But now I wonder whether the economy will drive this election to the usual extent—or to the extent I had thought. More specifically, will the Republican Party nominate a candidate who can credibly compete for the independent voters whose support is so important in general elections?
Independents represented 29 percent of the electorate in 2008. In last year's combined Gallup polls, though, they were 40 percent—a record high. In 2000, Republican George W. Bush won the independent vote by 2 percentage points over Democrat Al Gore but narrowly lost the overall popular vote. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry actually carried independents by 1 point but lost the national popular vote by 3 points. The winner of the independent vote doesn’t necessarily win the general election. But a candidate has to be very competitive among independents to have a chance to win. In 2008, the GOP’s John McCain lost the independent vote by 8 percentage points and the election by 7 points.
Republicans should be concerned that Mitt Romney’s numbers among independents have been tanking in recent weeks; he went from double-digit leads over Obama in some polls, including one by the Pew Research Center, to a 9-point deficit. He is considered the “most electable” Republican. If other GOP contenders have equally dismal or worse approval numbers among independents, you have to wonder whether this could end up as a choice election, with Republicans coming out on the losing end.
It is becoming quite clear that the conservative base of the Republican Party is driving the car. These voters prefer someone from the pull-no-punches brand of conservatism that created the tea party movement in 2009 and handed Republicans their House majority in 2010. It’s certainly the GOP’s right and choice to do that. The calendar, though, says 2012. The mood of the broader electorate—and, specifically, independents—appears to be very different. If you see any of Obama’s advisers looking bruised from head to toe, it might be from pinching themselves in disbelief.
A month ago, in my Jan. 23 National Journal Daily column, I pointed out that if Romney lost the Florida primary, after being thumped by former Speaker Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, time remained for a new candidate to get into the race. Thirteen states still had open filing deadlines then; 10 of them still do. Those contests could not provide a new entrant with the 1,144 delegates needed to walk into the GOP convention with the nomination. But with enough delegates from states such as California, the new candidate would have a seat at a table and possibly some momentum.
If Romney loses Michigan and has a disappointing Super Tuesday, this scenario could happen. It is now quite plausible that Romney will lose the nomination. But it is much harder to see Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, or Ron Paul winning it.
If House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell went into a back room, maybe accompanied by the four living GOP presidential nominees (McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, and George H.W. Bush), with the doors locked and a puff of smoke emerging, they could decide on a 2012 Republican nominee. That anointed one would possibly be a stronger general-election contender than whomever the GOP will probably end up picking. But could such an establishment choice pass muster with the base?
Simply put, the passion and energy of the Republican Party today may well fail to produce a nominee with a decent chance of winning in November. My assumption was that Romney would be the nominee and would make a good run. Now, I have begun to doubt both propositions. His odds of winning the nomination are growing longer. And even if he does, he has twisted and turned himself into a human pretzel. I’m not sure how electable he is. The alternatives, however, seem even less so.
This article appears in the February 25, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.