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A Strong Candidate Isn't Needed to Beat a Weak Incumbent

A Strong Candidate Isn't Needed to Beat a Weak Incumbent

By Sean Trende - December 5, 2011


The conventional wisdom persists that President Obama remains a strong contender for re-election in 2012, in large part because the Republican field is so weak. If the Republicans don't nominate a moderate conservative like Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman, the CW goes, they’ll find themselves shut out of the Oval Office for another four years.

There are two problems with this. The first is the sense that Mitt Romney is a particularly strong candidate (the same certainly goes for Huntsman). In fact, Romney's flip-flops, slickness, wooden personality (witness how flat his joke fell when he claimed his first name really is Mitt -- when it is in fact Willard) and Wall Street ties present real obstacles for a general election bid.

More importantly, the conventional wisdom overstates the importance of challenger quality in these races. David Axelrod insists that this election offers a choice, rather than a referendum, but all experience points to the contrary. This election will largely turn on how the electorate views Barack Obama’s term in office. If voters don’t think Obama is doing a good job, they will probably vote for someone else. Incidentally, Axelrod made similar comments about the 2010 elections; we all know how that turned out.

Part of the problem is that our chattering class hasn’t fully accepted how weak the president really is. His job approval in the RCP Average remains mired at 44 percent. It has ventured above 50 percent exactly twice in the past few years: Once in the wake of the tragic shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords, and once when the United States killed Osama bin Laden. But even then, his ratings were at best tepid. His reward for killing America’s public enemy No. 1? An approval that peaked at 52.6 percent. Moreover, his approval ratings on individual issues remain horrific, suggesting more downside than upside once the campaign truly engages.

This suggests a ceiling for the Obama that is perilously close to the minimum a president needs in order to be re-elected. As Jay Cost has noted, presidents rarely receive the votes of more than a small percentage of voters who disapprove of the job they are doing.

In fact, oddly enough, incumbents have seldom been defeated by particularly strong candidates. We’re constantly reminded that defeating an incumbent president is a rare thing. Given this, we’d expect candidates who defeat incumbents to be pretty close to perfect. But instead, they’ve typically been very flawed.

Take Jimmy Carter. He was a one-term governor of Georgia who emerged as a dark horse candidate in the Democratic primaries, to the horror of his party’s establishment. He almost blew a near-perfect opportunity to defeat Gerald Ford, winning by only two points amid high unemployment and widespread voter revulsion with the Republican Party.

Or Bill Clinton. People remember him today as a strong Democratic president. But that was not how he was perceived as a candidate. There really was a time when an adulterer who smoked marijuana and avoided the draft could not conceivably be elected president. Combine these traits with Clinton’s “flexibility” on the issues, and many pundits wrote him off in early 1992, especially when he sank into the 20s in the polls against George H.W. Bush and H. Ross Perot.

Even Ronald Reagan was not perceived as a particularly strong candidate; he regularly polled about 15 points worse than Gerald Ford in hypothetical early matchups with Carter. Carter’s team truly hoped that they would face off against Reagan, who was universally viewed as too much of a radical to win.

There are other examples -- take John Kerry, an exceptionally weak candidate who very nearly defeated a wartime president -- but the bottom line is clear: Weak candidates defeat weak incumbents all the time.

Now, this begs the question of whether Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, or even Romney reaches the level of Reagan/Clinton/Carter in terms of candidate quality. This remains to be seen. Certainly Republicans should be cheered by the Public Policy Polling (D) poll of “voters” in the critical swing state of Florida showing Obama ahead by a 50-to-44 margin. This suggests that among the actual electorate (i.e., once a likely-voters screen is imposed), Obama and Gingrich are pretty close to tied.

But there’s another way to look at it. Given the enthusiasm gap between the parties, the 2012 electorate will probably be roughly split between Republicans and Democrats. Independent voters will therefore hold the key to the election.

Consider these three 2010 Senate challengers frequently cited as examples of candidates who are too extreme to win. It’s a little-known fact that Ken Buck won independents by 16 points in Colorado. In Nevada, Sharron Angle won them by four points. Even Christine O’Donnell, who is something of the ultimate warning sign against Tea Party excess, lost independents only by three points. They all lost their races in large part because they faced Democrat-heavy electorates. Had the electorates been evenly split between the parties, all three would have run very close races.

Whatever their faults, Romney, Gingrich, and Perry are not Christine O’Donnell-style candidates. They probably don’t rise to the level of Sharron Angle candidates. Now, whether they are strong enough to actually win a race against Obama is still an open question. But given the very real weakness of the current president, I would not be surprised if any of them were very much in the game come November 2012. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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