The identity of the GOP nominee matters

Among many political commentators, the meme du jour regarding the 2012 presidential race is that President Obama’s real opponent is the economy; who Republicans nominate is of limited importance.

On its face, this characterization makes sense. As Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson note in their book about the 2008 election, as early as spring 2007, focus groups were turning out results that showed deep pessimism about the country’s direction, with economic worries overshadowing all else. That was a setup that inherently put Sen. John McCain in a bind, as the candidate wearing the same partisan label as the incumbent overseeing what many voters saw as a period of deep national decline. When the financial crisis hit, the deal was sealed: McCain was, you might say, destined to lose.

But what if McCain had faced a different opponent, one less associated with the dual concepts of “hope” and “change,” one less capable of raising money, one lacking a platform like MyBarackObama that gave Obama an online and offline boost? The election likely would have been closer. What if Republicans had nominated a candidate other than McCain, arguably at the time the Republican with the strongest appeal to Independent and Democratic voters? Obama would have had an even greater edge.

The reality is, in politics, myriad factors affect the outcome of races, and the identity of the candidates matters.

With the 2012 presidential race now underway, and the Republican field largely set, Obama has two major, related liabilities: The economy and the general sense of the direction of the country. He also has a number of assets: Americans like him (if not his policies); recent polling shows him scoring better on foreign policy and national security matters than on the economy; he is likely to have a very large campaign war-chest; the RNC remains in financially dire straits, and Democratic-aligned third-party groups will play in the 2012 race just as Republican-aligned groups will. Obama will do a better job than most, perhaps all, Republican candidates in leveraging technology to boost his campaign. Perhaps most importantly, he is the incumbent. To what extent any of these factors proves overwhelming, or irrelevant, depends not just on the unemployment rate, but also greatly on whom Republicans nominate.

Like Obama, each Republican contender has assets and liabilities that they will bring to the table, and which will significantly affect the outcome of the race. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, currently the man to beat, looks likely to end the current financing quarter with plenty of cash in the bank. Last month, he locked down $10 million in a single, day-long fundraising push. Earlier this year, Republican insiders indicated Romney already had the backing of about one-third of the party’s big donors. The more it looks like Sarah Palin will enter the race, the more big donors will flock to Romney. In a race against a president who, news reports indicate, plans to raise and spend as much as $1 billion, money will matter — and Romney appears likely to have a lot of it.

That’s a big help, but of course, Romney has his liabilities, too. While his record in business will prove inherently attractive to some voters, should he win the nomination, it will be the subject of hard-hitting attacks ads with which Democrats can be expected to blanket airwaves, especially in the Midwest. That’s a strategy that could prove highly effective, particularly if Romney is forced to spend more time and energy on states that traditionally go Republican because of skepticism over his ideological commitment, religion, or both (no matter how unfair concern about the latter of those is). Significant segments of the Republican base dislike Romneycare, his health care plan that formed the basis for Obamacare, which remains controversial and unpopular among voters in his own party. Romney also can strike observers as plastic, robotic, and inauthentic. More Piers Morgan-esque interviews may diminish that, but for the time being, it should not be discounted.