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.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty frequently is charged with being uncharismatic, boring, and in the aftermath of the most recent Republican debate, shy about throwing punches. However, one of those liabilities could in fact prove an asset: Obama continues to strike some as a lavish-spending, fiscally irresponsible celebrity-esque president at a time when voters might prefer the less-exciting, responsible, trustworthy, relatable guy from next door. Pawlenty also has a clearly positive outlook and is capable of making Americans feel good, much like candidate Obama from 2008 — coincidentally, the Obama Americans would probably like to see more of, but who may or may not make routine appearances over the next year-plus.
Pawlenty also has a record, particularly on health care and spending, that presents a clearer contrast with Obama’s than other Republicans — and Minnesota’s population is among the better-off, healthiest and most educated in the U.S. If health care remains a high-profile issue, he could benefit (the same is true to a degree with spending). If it does not, he could suffer. His campaign is also generally regarded as more tech-savvy, potentially enabling him to better match Obama on that front. Currently, however, Pawlenty lacks Romney’s fundraising base. He will need to bring in quite a bit more money to match Obama should he win the nomination.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has, since before his appointment as ambassador to China, been the prospective contender the Obama camp has reportedly been most worried about, with campaign manager David Plouffe saying in 2009 that Huntsman makes him “a wee bit queasy.” Of course, some parts of the Republican base might take a similar view, unnerved by Huntsman’s more moderate profile and quick transition from ambassador to China to Obama opponent, which might diminish enthusiasm for phone-banking, door-knocking, and other essential volunteer activity in some quarters should he win the nomination.
Huntsman also has a record in business, which is potentially exploitable in view of voter angst about unemployment numbers. Huntsman’s business connections could enable him to finance a tough, expensive campaign (which he does not plan to pay for out of his own wealth) and bolster arguments that he knows how to create jobs. As a Republican nominee, the Utahan might run a more attention-grabbing, earned-media dominating campaign than other Republicans or indeed Obama (see ads created by Huntsman adviser Fred Davis), which could minimize the impact of advantages Obama might otherwise have. Huntsman has also done smart things from a new media standpoint, and that will help. In the event that a major national security event occurs in the run-up to November 2012, and if Obama missteps or voters’ priorities shift, Huntsman could clean up. Bill Clinton benefited when the 1992 election became focused on “the economy, stupid” and George H. W. Bush’s leadership in the context of the Gulf War was disregarded as yesterday’s news. In 2012, that scenario could occur in reverse.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the (current) non-contender around whom attention swirls, could, if he runs, be Obama’s toughest opponent or his easiest of these four, depending on what circumstances prevail. Some Democratic insiders see him as the real-life equivalent of the West Wing’s Gov. Robert Ritchie, depicted in the show as a conservative, ideological, dim-bulb Southerner. Others say Perry is just too similar in terms of his appearance and demeanor to George W. Bush to pass muster with voters quite yet.
But Perry could be a real threat to Obama in an election about jobs. Texas currently boasts an unemployment rate of 8 percent, more than a percentage point lower than the national rate. According to the Wall Street Journal, Texas accounts for 45 percent of net U.S. job creation in the “post-recovery” period, using non-farm payroll employment numbers. As several conservative bloggers and commentators have been quick to quip, like Obama, Perry too inherited an economy from George W. Bush — it’s just that Texas’s looks very successful compared to what we see nationwide.
A Perry campaign would have the money it needs to ensure voters understand which candidate knows how to create jobs, no matter what else is happening in Republican-land. Arguably more than any other candidacy, a Perry run would diminish Obama’s ability to claim credit for anything that even remotely appears to be going right. And say what you will about Perry’s superficial conformity with stereotypes often associated with Republicans, unlike most politicians, Perry does not come off as putting on an act.
A lot can change in a year-and-a-bit, and yes, factors like the state of the economy will be important in deciding the outcome of the 2012 race. But they will not be the sole determiner; who Republicans nominate still matters greatly.
Liz Mair is a political consultant focusing on communications and new media. During 2008, she served as the Republican National Committee’s Online Communications Director. Her clients include several Fortune 500 companies and major trade associations; she previously consulted for California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina and Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Freedom First PAC.