Horse Race 2012

I’m usually reluctant to write about the presidential horserace, because it already gets over-covered in the corporate media, at the expense of covering who the candidates are and what they propose to do.

On the other hand, the media also tends to get the horse race wrong, which tempts me to comment. Recently, for example, pundits have been analyzing “what went wrong” with Tim Pawlenty’s candidacy, never admitting that it was a mistake to give him so much coverage in the first place. In truth, they could just as fruitfully analyze what went wrong with your candidacy or mine, since neither of us is going to be president either.

(I wrote about Pawlenty because his campaign videos illustrated an important propaganda technique.)

So (with proper apologies and promises of future restraint) I’m going to plunge into some horserace coverage about the 2012 election.

President Obama. President Obama’s job approval rating hit an all-time low of 40% this week. Still, he is polling well — or at least not badly — against his potential 2012 opponents: In three states a Republican challenger needs to win — North Carolina, Ohio, and Colorado — Obama is “edging Mitt Romney and keeping clear leads on the rest of the field”.

So Obama’s approval-rating slump seems less of a personal rejection than a symptom of a general wave of pessimism with the economy and disgust with American politics following the debt-ceiling debacle. Things are bad and the President seems to have no solution, but neither does anybody else.

Nate Silver (who I consider the best poll interpreter in the country) is struck more by the breadth of Obama’s slump than its size. During 2011 his approval rating has fallen among all income groups and in all regions of the country; among whites, blacks, and Hispanics; among conservative Republicans as well as liberal Democrats.

The drop among liberal Democrats is fairly small — about 3% — something you would never guess from progressive blogs like Hullabaloo. Nate sums up like this:

Although many leading liberal voices were unhappy with the debt ceiling deal that Mr. Obama struck with Republicans this month (justifiably, in my view), this just isn’t showing up in a big way among the liberal rank-and-file.

One thing to keep in mind is that if most liberal Democrats had strongly approved of Mr. Obama’s performance before, then a “downgrade” in their views of him might be toward less enthusiastic approval, rather than to outright disapproval. Although these liberal Democrats might not vote against Mr. Obama, less enthusiastic support could translate into reduced turnout, volunteerism and fund-raising for the president’s re-election campaign.

Count me among that number. I’ve gone from an enthusiastic Obama supporter to someone who says “at least he’s not batshit crazy”.

The Republican Savior Search. Republicans are currently going through what Democrats suffered in 2004, when Bush seemed beatable, but we lurched from one “savior” to the next because we just couldn’t find the right person to run against him. Howard Dean was going to save us, and then he wasn’t. Wesley Clark was popular until the exact moment he entered the race, and then we started longing for Hillary Clinton or Al Gore.

This year, Rick Perry is playing the Wesley Clark role. He was supposed to be the answer for Republicans who think that Michele Bachmann is unelectable (like Howard Dean), Mitt Romney is too establishment and too phony (like John Kerry), and (in spite of previous boomlets for Donald Trump and Herman Cain) everybody else just seems too small or too boring.

Then Rick ruined it all by announcing his candidacy. Suddenly he was every bit as crazy as Bachmann, a corrupt crony capitalist, a Shariah sympathizer, a porno investor, “an idiot“, a proponent of “big government overreach” and somehow simultaneously “the second coming of George Bush” and at war with the former Bushies. [In fairness: Think Progress explains why the porno charge is overblown.]

So now Republicans daydream of new saviors: Jeb Bush, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan.

The Republican problem in a nutshell is that no actual candidate polls as well against Obama as the generic Republican. This is similar to the phenomenon that generic spending cuts are popular, while specific cuts aren’t. The generic Republican candidate runs on a generic platform that cuts spending without cutting anything important. Actual candidates have to be more specific.

The path to beating Obama is clear: He’s vulnerable on the economy, which everybody is disappointed in. The Republican candidate needs to talk about creating jobs while obscuring the fact that none of the Republican ideas created jobs when President Bush tried them. That’s why I was briefly worried when Perry cast himself as “the jobs governor”. The we-did-it-in-Texas message is deceptive, but it could fly.

The Republican problem is to get a candidate nominated without taking far-outside-the-mainstream positions, particularly on social issues. You can’t run against the gays any more. Prayer is good, but urging the public to pray for rain is wacky (especially if God turns you down). And abortions are strangely like guns: Most Americans think there are too many of them, but they still want their family to be able to get one as a last resort.

Other red-meat conservative issues fail nationally, too. People may not want to make big sacrifices to avoid global warming, but Perry’s scientists-are-frauds claim or Bachmann’s promise to “lock the doors” and “turn off the lights” at the EPA are going to scare more people than they attract. Illegal immigration worries many whites, but Republicans can’t win without at least 1/3 of the Hispanic vote.

So a winning Republican needs to wink-and-nod to the extremists while not scaring everybody else. Only Romney (OK, Huntsman also, for all his chances are worth) is trying to walk that line, and I think he could beat Obama if things continue to look bad economically. But the only way he wins the nomination is if Perry, Bachmann and maybe Palin split the wacko vote in the primaries.

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  • Michel S.  On August 23, 2011 at 4:32 pm


    I’m a bit aghast you compared Dean to Bachmann. The former is sane, qualified, and wasn’t even doing that badly in head-to-head match-ups against W. He’s by no mean a McGovern (on the Democrat side) or a Goldwater (on the Republican) — let alone a Bachmann.

    One big difference is that it seems the more establishment Democrats were trying to take Dean down, whereas no Republican (save Huntsman) seems to dare to even call Bachmann out, they’re just too busy emulating her.


  • By Objections « The Weekly Sift on August 22, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    […] Horse Race 2012. In general the corporate media over-covers the presidential horserace, and I hate to compound the problem. But they also cover it badly, so now-and-then I feel like I have to comment. […]

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