Friday, April 1, 2011

The Election of 2012

The following article offers my thoughts on the upcoming presidential election in 2012. It combines two of my previous blog articles ("Election 2012: My Predictions" and "My Thoughts on Mike Huckabee") and includes an addenda that I wrote today.

2012: The Republican Nomination

First, you must remember that presidential nominations are determined not by how the candidates fare in national polls of their party's voters, but rather by how they perform in the earlier primaries. After all, if the national standings of each candidate were the determining variable, then the election of 2008 would have been a contest between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani instead of Barack Obama and John McCain, much as Edmund Muskie would have been the Democratic nominee in 1972 and Howard Dean the candidate in 2004.

Once this is born in mind, you come to some interesting conclusions as to the situation facing Republicans in 2012:

- The first primary (technically a caucus, although that makes little difference insofar as the vital task of establishing perceived political momentum is concerned) will be held in Iowa on January 16th. Early polls have consistently shown Mike Huckabee with a solid lead there, and there is little reason to think he won't be able to keep it over the next year, given that (a) he won that state in 2008 and (b) he is considered to be the most electable of the candidates who appeal to that ideological section of the GOP (which dominates the Iowa Republican party), making it unlikely that potential alternatives like Palin or Gingrich will be able to cut into his support. Should he win, it will automatically give him much-needed national attention and establish his status as one of his party's chief contenders for the nomination. Meanwhile, Romney will probably place a reasonably successful second (which is perfectly fine for him, since he isn't expected to win that state anyway) and thus continue to be in a position of strength, while Palin, Gingrich, and the other far right candidates will find themselves in considerable trouble, as the desire of their movement to unite around one candidate (and ideally the strongest one) will cause much of their support to leak over to Huckabee.

- The second primary will be held in New Hampshire on January 24th. Early polls here have shown Romney winning by an overwhelming margin, with all of the other candidates posting returns so small as to be politically inconsequential. Once again, the chances are strong that Romney will able to keep this lead, given both the Granite State GOP's comparatively moderate character and Romney's own geographic proximity to its borders. This victory will prove extremely significant for Romney, as it will (a) establish him as a viable political contender on par with Huckabee for the GOP nomination and (b) solidify his status as the candidate for Republican moderates. Huckabee is unlikely to be hurt by his poor showing in New Hampshire for much the same reason that Romney won't be hurt by Iowa (i.e., he isn't expected to do well there), although it is likely that this state will deal a death blow to the chances of every other prominent Republican contender. Even if candidates like Palin and Gingrich don't drop out after this state, it is unlikely that they will be major factors in the primary process after this point.

- This is where things get tricky. Once the nomination contest has effectively narrowed down to a battle between Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, supporters of the other candidates will begin flocking to one of the two camps en masse, something that has to be taken into account when looking at polls for the remaining states. My suspicion is that Huckabee will try to win the remaining primary voters by appealing to them as a champion of the Christian Right, as someone who has actively courted the Tea Party (unlike Romney, which I will get to in a moment), and as a more reliable conservative than Romney, whose support of an Obamacare-esque health care reform program in Massachusetts, flip-flopping on abortion, coldness toward the Tea Party, and Mormon faith will all be liabilities among much of his party's right-wing base (the last variable will be less explicitly stated, of course). Romney, on the other hand, will try to present himself to these voters as being both sufficiently conservative to deserve a Republican nomination (primarily by citing his fiscal record as Governor of Massachusetts) and yet better equipped to win the general election than Huckabee. This latter claim will be backed up by Romney's biography (which, given his career as an extremely successful business fixer-upper, will be very appealing in an election that focuses on economic issues), his superior standing in match-offs against Obama in polls, and his overall image as a moderate whose distance from the party's controversial groups (mainly the Tea Party and the Christian Right) will make him more palatable to swing voters in the general election

How will Republican voters decide? Some may cite a recent poll which found that 68% of Republicans feel it is more important that they choose a candidate who can beat Obama, compared to only 29% who place a priority on having one who "agrees (with them) on every issue." While that seems to bode well for Romney, it's important to note that the people surveyed were only asked this question on an abstract level, which makes the likelihood of them choosing pragmatism much greater than it would be if they had concrete examples of ideological incompatibility in front of them (viz., Romney's record on health care reform or abortion rights).

More telling is the fact that the primary voters who didn't initially support either Huckabee or Romney - i.e., the ones who Romney and Huckabee will have to actively court - didn't lean toward candidates like Tim Pawlenty or Mitch Daniels before their options were whittled down, which would suggest moderate inclinations on their part; instead they leaned toward candidates like Palin and Gingrich, thus suggesting a radical bent in their leanings. This is significant because it means that their ideological sympathies are much more closely aligned with Huckabee than Romney, suggesting that their votes (which, when combined, are considerable enough to put him over the top in most of the remaining primary states) would be most likely to go to him.

At the same time, Republicans are well versed enough in history to know the dangers of nominating an unelectable radical, be it with Barry Goldwater in the presidential election of 1964 or with a flurry of Tea Party candidates in the 2010 midterms who lost states that had otherwise been in the bag (viz., Christine O' Donnell, Sharron Angle, Joe Miller). The question will thus ultimately boil down to this: Will the doubts that the remaining GOP primary voters have about Huckabee's be strong enough to prompt them to support a candidate for whom they are at best lukewarm and at worst downright suspicious?

There are numerous variables that will come into play as that question is resolved. My suspicion is that, although Huckabee doesn't fare as well as Romney in polls against Obama, his comparative standing isn't so poor that it will become the decisive factor. This, combined with Romney's aforementioned weaknesses among grassroots conservatives, will probably move the key bulk of Palin and Gingrich supporters to Huckabee, delivering him the next two primary states (South Carolina on January 28th and Florida on January 31st) as well as a critical mass of the Super Tuesday states on February 7th. While Romney may win enough Super Tuesday states to stay in the game for a little longer, I doubt it will do more than put his campaign on life support. Republicans have a long history of closing ranks around the perceived winner once he has built enough momentum (the last time they didn't do this, not coincidentally, was with Goldwater in 1964), and I suspect Huckabee would be a similar beneficiary of this.

In the end, I thus foresee an election in which Barack Obama and Joe Biden (who, despite rumors that he will be dropped from the ticket, is likely to be retained in the name of political expedience) run against Mike Huckabee and Jon Huntsman, a former Governor of Utah and Ambassador to China who will be chosen by Huckabee because (a) his resume can balance out Huckabee's inexperience in foreign policy, (b) his image as a moderate and bi-partisan record (thanks to working for Obama) can help win over moderate swing voters wary of Huckabee's extremism, and (c) and his Mormonism can help Huckabee win back voters from that faith who rightfully resent Huckabee for his bigoted comments about their religion. In lieu of Huntsman, the next most likely choice would be Marco Rubio, chosen due to the esteem in which he is held by the Tea Party, his ability to appeal to Latino voters, and his being from the swing state of Florida. That said, my suspicion is that his inexperience and strong right-wing views will cause Huckabee to veer for a safer choice, Huntsman.

2012: The General Election

First, I see Obama keeping Joe Biden on his ticket in 2012. For one thing, no incumbent vice president has been removed from a major ticket since 1944, even potentially harmful ones like Richard Nixon in 1956 and Dan Quayle in 1992; for another, Biden would almost certainly make a fuss if it became clear that he might be removed, one that would cause far more trouble for Obama's candidacy than any possible replacement would be worth.

From there, I believe that Obama-Biden would resoundingly defeat Huckabee-Huntsman in 2012.

There are plenty of reasons why this is the case. We can start with Wayne DuMond, an Arkansas man who was sentenced to thirty-nine years in prison (reduced from an initial life plus twenty years) after he brutally raped a seventeen-year-old girl. Because the evidence that he had committed this crime was irrefutable, normally his case wouldn’t have attracted any special attention.

However, there was a catch – unbeknownst to DuMond, the girl he’d raped was the third cousin of Bill Clinton.

Normally this wouldn’t have made any difference. However, several right-wing extremists decided to spread rumors that DuMond was innocent, a claim that – despite its absolute and obvious falsehood – was fervently embraced by those who hated Clinton as president.

Foremost among them was Mike Huckabee, who not only commuted DuMond’s sentence less than ten weeks after becoming governor, but even skirted federal law by tampering with the parole board (which had twice voted to deny DuMond parole) so that it would decide in his favor.

Less than a year after DuMond was released, he raped another woman. This time, he also murdered her.

This may be the most abhorrent thing Huckabee has done, but it certainly isn’t the only one. He also has a history of sexism (1998 – he signs a full-page advertisement in USA Today saying that women should “submit graciously” to their husbands), racism (1993 – he speaks before a white supremacist group known as the Council of Conservative Citizens), and bigotry against Mormons (2008 – he claims that Mormons believe Jesus and Satan are brothers). The group for which he has reserved his worst bile are homosexuals, whose sexual orientation he has compared with incest, who he has claimed are committing moral sins comparable with lying and stealing, and who he partially blamed for the spate of school shootings in the ‘90s in his book Kids Who Kill. He has even argued that allowing gay marriage would threaten the survival of civilization.

Finally, there is the threat that Huckabee poses to one of America’s most basic and important liberties – religious freedom, as protected by the separation of church and state.

From a speech delivered in his 2008 presidential campaign:

I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that’s what we need to do — to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards…

All of these things are relevant for two reasons:

1. Americans have a historic habit of voting against major party candidates they perceive as being ideologically extreme, from Barry Goldwater on the right (1964) to George McGovern on the left (1972). Despite the popular claims by right-wing pundits that Obama is a left-wing radical, the reality is that most Americans - while indeed viewing him as liberal - do not see anything inherently threatening about the degree of his liberalism. The same, however, is not likely to be true of Huckabee, in light of his hardcore Christian Right positions.

2. While Americans are willing to overlook a politician's scandals if they fall within the confines of what prevailing cynical notions dictate is common within that profession (viz., the corruption among close presidential advisers that hurt Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the emerging Watergate chicanery that hurt Richard Nixon in 1972, the sexual sordidness that hurt Bill Clinton in 1992), they tend to be much harsher on scandals that are (a) outside the norm of what the jaded public expects of politicians and (b) reflect poorly on the candidate's character in a manner that seems beyond redemption. The best example of this was the Willie Horton scandal that helped bring down Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign in 1988. Huckabee's scandal with Wayne DuMond appears comparable to that one in many respects, and is likely to have a similar impact on his political fortunes.

There is a third and final factor to be taken into account - the economy. Here, there are two contingencies, either one of which seems to favor Obama:

3a. The Economy Improves:

Unemployment has dropped by nearly one full percentage point in the last three months (from 9.8% in November 2010 to 8.9% in February 2011), an average of a little more than 0.3% per month. If it continues to decline at even half that rate for the next ten months and, if nothing else, levels off for the period after that, it will be at 7.4% when it comes time for Obama to seek reelection. While such a figure would still be unusually high, it is identical to the rate at which Ronald Reagan was reelected in 1984; to the extent that economic conditions impact the reelection prospects of incumbent presidents, they do so based not merely on the actual state of the economy, but also on whether it has been perceived as improving since the current president took office. In Ronald Reagan's case, although the economy hadn't actually improved in any meaningful sense since he was inaugurated (unemployment was 7.5% when he took office in January 1981 and 7.4% when he was reelected in November 1984), it had declined considerably from the peak of between 10% and 11% that it had reached near the middle of his first term, giving the impression of a turnaround. Similarly, although a 7.4% unemployment rate would only constitute a marginal improvement from when Obama took office (it had been 7.7% in January 2009), that would still be a considerable fall from the 9-10% rate at which it has hovered for the past year. In short, so long as the current recovery continues at even a reasonably moderate pace, Obama's reelection prospects seem strong.

3b. The Economy Doesn't Improve:

Although conventional wisdom dictates that a president who has presided over an economic decline doesn't get reelected, two presidents in recent history have bucked that trend - Richard Nixon, who saw unemployment rise 2.2% between the time he was inaugurated (January 1969, at which it had been at 3.4%) and the time he was reelected (November 1972, by which time it had reached 5.6%), and George W. Bush, who saw unemployment rise 1.6% between the time he was inaugurated (January 2001, at which it had been at 3.9%) and the time he was reelected (November 2004, at which it had been at 5.5%).

On both occasions, these presidents benefited from the fact that other issues took attention away from the state of the economy. While the one that benefited George W. Bush (a terrorist attack that caused a mass rallying behind the president) is unlikely to benefit Obama, since a terrorist attack would likely be blamed on him, the one that benefited Richard Nixon - i.e., the nomination of an opposing candidate whose ideological radicalism turned off the vast bulk of the public - is very likely to fall into place for Obama if Huckabee is the nominee.

So to repeat what I wrote earlier:

I believe that Obama-Biden would resoundingly defeat Huckabee-Huntsman in 2012.

No comments: