Handicapping the 2012 Presidential Election Field

John Mark Reynolds

Handicapping the 2012 Presidential Election Field

Opinions about a race this far away are like predicting the top draft pick for your favorite team and as likely to be as accurate as Mel Kiper, but it is a fun game so everyone does both things (the Packers will pick a lineman ... or not).

During the last race, I warned the GOP that the election was the Democrats to lose. My friends on the right should recall that this race too will be Obama’s to lose. My friends on the left should note that the signs show he might. So here is the state of the election now as I see it. This is not necessarily what I wish, but what I think is probable.

Any race with an incumbent will be about the incumbent unless the other party nominates someone who is so insane that nobody can risk a vote on him. People were sick of Jimmy Carter, and Reagan passed the “insanity” test against Carter, so Carter was doomed.

President Obama, like any incumbent, has formidable advantages. People may complain about his work, but a majority voted for him once and would like to think they did the right thing. Underestimate him or assume he is “toast” and you show that you have become an unthinking partisan of the sort that in the Democrat Party still cannot believe Bush was reelected.

Still Obama has three problems. First, he mobilized the less extreme parts of the Republican Party and conservative base. Any president riles up the extremists on the other side (the kind that think Bush was evil or that Obama was not born in America), but Bush won reelection without a single one of those votes and Obama can as well. As a candidate, however, Obama was attractive to many of us who did not vote for him in a way McCain was not. More wobbly Republican voters crossed over and voted for him. Obama, by overreaching on social issues, spending and health care, ended that.

Mainstream Republicans are energized to vote him out of office.

This would be a minor problem if the economy were strong. Independents vote the economy and the economy is not great.

The president would (deservedly) get more of a pass on this if he had not put himself on the record as “owning” the economy. The other issue: rising gas prices. These are a weekly reminder to most Americans on inflation. Spending also worries independents.

Finally, Obama managed to spend a great deal of money, but also spend much of it helping big financial firms. You can argue that this was necessary, but populists distrust big business (for some good reasons) as much as they distrust big government. Obama managed to alienate conservatives and populists with his stimulus mess.

The president should not take comfort in the “weak Republican field.” As Giles, my wise Republican-since-Taft political mentor, says: “Our GOP guy/gal may not even be in it yet.” He also points out that every Republican field (check out the press on 1980, 1988 and 1996) is thought weak before the nominee wins.

If he loses, Obama will most surely think: “I cannot believe I lost to this person.” Most Democrats do.

Still Republican could nominate someone unelectable, in fact there a several choices. Here is a quick, one sentence breakdown of the field:

The Favorites

  1. Mike Huckabee: Hated by the noisy Net, he has huge social conservative pull, but his weight gain suggests he will not run.
  2. Mitt Romney: Hated by the Huckabee base, but if it is the economy at issue could win the general.

The Unelectable

  1. Sarah Palin: Many of us were once fans, but resigning as governor and fluffy books and television appearances means she will never be president.
  2. Michele Bachmann: Every party has a flame-thrower type, but none should imagine being also seen as fit for president.
  3. Donald Trump: A bad sign for a GOP candidate -- my family has been Republican since the Civil War, but there is no chance anyone in my family would vote for Trump ever.
  4. Newt Gingrich: Idea guy who already showed he couldn’t be “the man.”
  5. Ron Paul: Too old and too ideological.

The Unknown

  1. Tim Pawlenty: If Romney was not Mormon and Huckabee was bland, they would morph into this guy.
  2. Haley Barbour: If Huckabee doesn’t run, would come to the convention with many delegates, but lobbying in the past may doom him.
  3. Gary Johnson: New Mexico governor and libertarian more attractive than Paul, but social issues would doom him for the nomination.
  4. Mike Pence: Maybe this congressman has a shot, but if Kemp couldn’t run from the House, I doubt he can.

Any GOP race has media room for three main contenders (2008: McCain, Huckabee, Romney). Romney will run and be one of them. If Huckabee runs, he will be the second. Palin would be the third if she ran, but cannot win the nomination.

At this point, given the demographics of the primary voters, Huckabee would be a slight favorite against Romney, but I do not think he will run. Romney is, therefore, the likely nominee with Marco Rubio as his running mate.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute and professor of philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.

Publication date: April 14, 2011