Can Any Republican Beat Obama in 2012?

Does it matter which candidate the GOP nominates?

In my ridiculously early handicapping of the 2012 Electoral College, among my caveats was “Presuming that the Republicans nominate a plausible candidate (Romney, Perry, Huntsman, or Pawlenty would all qualify).” Let’s revisit that in light of some other pieces going around.

Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen uses state-by-state surveys to proclaim “if the Republicans nominate Mitt Romney it’s a toss up. And if they nominate anyone else it’s 2008 all over again.”

Obama’s holding his ground against everyone but Romney in Nevada because voters there find the whole GOP field even more unpalatable than him. Romney comes close to breaking even on favorability at 38/43 but the rest of the Republicans are quite unpopular- a -9 spread for Cain at 24/33, a -12 for Perry at 24/36, a -21 for Bachmann at 30/51, and a -28 for Palin at 32/60.

Voters disliking the Republican candidates really is a vital component of Obama’s horse race numbers holding up as well as they are even as his approval numbers struggle. It remains to be seen whether he can really get reelected by being the lesser of two evils or if the election will end up being solely a referendum on him regardless of who the GOP puts forward. And one thing’s for sure- if voters ever warm up to one of the Republican candidates Obama will really be in trouble, in Nevada and everywhere.

The problem with this analysis is that, with the exception of Palin and Bachmann, all of the Republicans mentioned have lower disapproval numbers than Obama. Moreover, with the possible exceptions of Palin and Bachmann, most of the non-Romney candidates simply aren’t well enough known at this point for opinion numbers to be particularly meaningful.

More important, as Jonathan Bernstein and others have taken pains to constantly remind us, most of the political science data shows much smaller effects for candidate personality and campaign goings-on than the punditry would have you believe. In fact, economic data seems to be the overwhelming indicator of presidential election outcomes.

Kevin Drum believes–indeed, knows–that Rick Perry is unelectable simply because Texas governors and drawls are still tainted with the stink of George W. Bush. Matt Yglesias, rightly in my view, notes that Perry is “exactly the sort of person who wins presidential elections” and that, if the economy is still in the toilet, he’d have an excellent chance of winning.

Scott Lemieux goes even further, declaring that, “Barring an unusually strong economic turnaround that the debt-ceiling deal makes even less likely, anybody who wins the GOP nomination will have a reasonable chance of getting elected. Indeed, I’d push it even further, and say that this absolutely applies to Bachmann as well.” He adds, “The candidate chosen by the Republicans might make some difference at the margin—but that’s it. Anybody who wins the nod will have a real chance of winning, and Democrats who are hoping that Republican primary voters follow their worst instincts should be very careful what they wish for.”

Even Bernstein is skeptical about pushing it to this level observing, “There’s a clear possibility in my view that GOP nomination politics will be so nutty that the eventual nominee, whoever it is, will be at least somewhat damaged by it; as I’ve said before, the odds of the Republicans nominating a crazy candidate aren’t very high, but the odds of them nominating someone who has said crazy things keep increasing.”

Lemieux has two ways to be right here: First, simply winning a major party nomination confers a substantial amount of gravitas and plausibility. Second, the process itself tends to eliminate the crazies, even those who seemingly have great appeal to the base. Howard Dean–who, in hindsight at least, wasn’t a crazy but came across that way at times in 2004–imploded. Rudy Giuliani, who many of us considered the Great Sane Hope early in the 2008 cycle, was revealed to be batshit insane by this point in the race. So, Michele Bachmann is extraordinarily unlikely to win the Republican nomination but, if she does, it will be because along the way she convinced people that she’s actually a serious, reasonable candidate for the presidency.

Additionally, past experience shows that the American public is remarkably forgiving of candidates who have “said crazy things.” Hardly anyone is paying attention yet and people are mostly concerned with candidates coming across as likable, confident, and reasonably competent by the time of the second or third general election debate. Pretty much everything that happens before, short of a Kitty Dukakis rape moment, is the equivalent of an bad play in a preseason football game.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I agree with Jensen. However, the higher the unemployment rate is six months before the election, the harder it will be for the president to secure re-election. There is some point at which any Republican candidate would beat the president. We aren’t there yet by a longshot.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: I think we’re pretty close but that Obama will get some mileage by blaming Bush. But 9-10 percent unemployment is disastrously high.

    Romney’s the odds-on favorite, I think and Perry is the guy who strikes me as the most plausible alternative winner. I don’t think Palin runs and think Bachmann’s support is too limited. Huntsman is the most interesting candidate, but I just don’t see his path to the nomination.

  3. Chad S says:

    Jmo, but no matter the economy, the GOP opponent will need a solid economic plan that is supported by economists from both sides to make any hay of the unemployment rate. Also, they need a 3rd party liberal to force Obama out of the middle. Even then, it would be a 50/50 proposition.

  4. Chad S says:

    @James Joyner: 56% of americans *still* blame Bush for the economy primarily.

  5. hey norm says:

    Right now most people still blame Bush for the economy.
    Next November – if nothing has changed much – I could get elected President. And I inhaled.

  6. The GOP seems to have the same problem now as the DNC had in 2004:

    “Anybody but X” is a plea for help, not a challenge to come up with the worst possible alternative.

  7. Tsar Nicholas says:

    You can’t beat something with nothing.

    Exhibit A: Sharron Angle. Exhibit B: Ken Buck. Exhibit C: Christine O’Donnell. Exhibit D: Joe Miller.

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    One thing that seems to be left out of all these discussions is the very unpopular Republican Governors in the swing states of Ohio and Florida.

  9. superdestroyer says:

    Obama starts with 251 electorial votes without spending a dollar. Axelrod knows all that President Obama has to do is win Ohio or Florida and he wins. Given that demographics has changed since 2004 and the massive advantage that the Democrats have in fund raising, President Obama is a sure win. For about 45% of the voters, it does not matter how high the unemployment rate is or what the stock market is doing.

    The only question for 2012 is whether the Democrats will gain control of the U.S. House. Given the massive advantages that the Democrats have, they stand a good chance of getting there.

  10. Liberty60 says:

    Do me a favor, ok?

    Go over to Balloon Juice and convince all the emo sobbing liberals there that Obama will sweep to victory.

    You might just talk a few down off the ledge.


  11. madawaskan says:

    Most likely not.


    The axiom that if the unemployment rate is higher than “x” the incumbent fails is only more true for the Republican Presidential candidate.

    The unemployed are the newly dependent on Democrat base.

    Consider that the media – the other liberal base- propagandize for the Democrat particularly in Obama’s case where he was hand picked by them and-

    Houston, you’ve got a problem.


    Wow I went and read your write up on Guiliani as “bat *hit insane”-

    Here’s a quote:

    The alarm first sounded for me with his politically astute but disingenuous attack on Ron Paul for his suggestion that al Qaeda hates our foreign policy, not just our freedom. I chalked that up to the necessities of politics rather than a lack of understanding of the most important national security issue of our time. The more I hear and read, though, the more I think Giuliani is either a charlatan or a simpleton. Either he’s lying to us and we therefore have no idea what his foreign policy will be or, worse, this is what he really thinks. Either way, it’s not good.

    See the bolding now think about Obama when you read that?

    Libya….how is that any more rational?

    How about any of Obama’s other foreign policy planks during his campaign?

    Here’s what I think of the Libertarian label.

    It’s just a weak excuse to never defend reality, history or even object principles.

    I’ve got a feeling you’re most upset with Guiliani’s attack on Ron Paul.

    How about you defend this- as a bunch of Libertarians you should at least defend free speech here-that should be a simple agreed upon principle around here right?

    Then explain how you downgrade comments and not only bury them but when the reader chooses to read them the print is degraded to a less black and white read out.

    At your colleges would you support certain books you didn’t approve of (or that the majority didn’t approve of) having to go through a different check out process?

    Would you approve of the “print” being purposefully “faded” to make it more difficult for the reader?

    Ridiculous and paternalistic, no?

    But that’s what you engage in here-with deletions on top of that…

    Libertarians if you weren’t 1%- you’d be a large part of the problem you constantly rail against.

  12. superdestroyer says:


    The problem is that virtually everyone who posts at Balloon Juice is a white progressive who forget how many people are automatic Democratic voters and how many states are locks for the Democrats.

  13. JohnMcC says:

    Looking at the Republican party, what’s left of it in the ruins left by the so-called-conservative revulsion/revolution against the Bush era, I as a Democrat am reminded of the Oscar Wilde quote: “A man can’t be to careful in his choice of enemies.”

    Can you see the ads now of Perry embracing the ‘Statue of Liberty is a heathen idol’ guy? Or Michele asking to see the birth certificate?

    Can you really see a triumphant Republican base, smelling blood in the water, nominating Willard?

    Yeah, right. Good choice in enemies, Barack!

  14. catfish says:

    By any calculation, Obama has to win at least one southern state. As of today, that won’t happen. It won’t happen next year either.

  15. Herb says:

    “virtually everyone who posts at Balloon Juice is a white progressive ”

    Now we know why Balloon Juice’s Angry Black Lady is angry…

  16. An Interested Party says:

    The unemployed are the newly dependent on Democrat base.

    Ahh, so you are arguing that the unemployed can depend only on Democrats for things like unemployment insurance…yes, that does say a lot about the GOP…

    By any calculation, Obama has to win at least one southern state. As of today, that won’t happen. It won’t happen next year either.

    Oh? And tell us how Virginia and Florida are both locks for the GOP…

  17. superdestroyer says:


    The Democrats do not have to win a single Southern State and they know that. All they have to do is win all the states and Kerry won in 2004 and pick up Ohio. Not that hard to do and given the changing demographics of the U.S., it should be easy to do.

  18. just me says:

    I think Obama probably wins the election. I think it will be closer-a tighter percentage of the vote and in electoral votes if the GOP candidate is viable and runs a good campaign. I do think Obama and the GOP candidate are going to have their work cut out for them-and while going negative can work, I think both are going to have to have clear plans for how to handle the economy. The real problem is those plans to be effective are going to have to gore somebody’s ox, and neither side is going to want to share those details.

    I think the real question is what happens in congress. I generally plan for Obama to have 4 more years although if the economy really tanks and he seems rudderless then things might change-although there still needs to be a viable GOP candidate.

  19. oke e doke says:

    @superdestroyer: and remember— 300,000 people VOTED for Alvin Greene in the 2010 US senate race !!!! brain dead ? racists ?

  20. Catfish says:

    @superdestroyer: Ohio and Pennsylvania will be hard for the Democrats to keep. Even California is showing a lot of unrest and dissatisfaction in polls.

  21. An Interested Party says:

    Anyone who thinks that California will be in play next year really can’t be taken all that seriously…

  22. @superdestroyer: I do think President Obama will be reelected in 2012, but I think with redistricting he will have extremely short coattails. In fact, I think it is a distinct possibility the GOP takes the Senate.

    @just me: Personally, I think this election will be won or lost (largely) on how the public feels about the President, not whether or not he has a “clear plan” for the economy. It will be a referendum on President Obama’s performance, and short of a GOP crazy, that perception will likely determine his fate.

  23. Civis Liberum says:

    Sorry, but there is massive denial going on here. I am reminded of the 1980 campaign. I was a student at Brown University (“Comsomol on the Narragansett”) and everyone was certain tha Carter would decimate Reagan. Everyone was sure. After all, Reagan was “stupid”. Reagan was a conservative. Reagan was “old”. But, alas, Reagan won BIG.

    You see, people tend to impose the mindset of their institutional setting onto the outer world. It’s a type of delusional thinking. It’s comfortable and comforting. Their analyses are often badly askew because of this. Well, kids, it’s déjà vu all over again.

    2012 will shape up to be a massive, generational defeat for the Democrats, one that will take a couple of decades from which to recover. Democrats will lose at the state and federal levels – including the U.S. Senate (although not giving Republicans 60 seats). No, I don’t think Palin or Bachmann can win the nomination. My handicap of the race (as of now) is Perry / Bachmann vs. Obama / Clinton (or Cuomo). It will be like The Helen Keller School for the Blind took part in the running of the bulls at Pamplona. Wowee!

  24. An Interested Party says:

    Talk about massive denial…Perry / Bachmann vs. Obama / Clinton (or Cuomo)? With Perry/Bachmann winning? Please…sorry to break it to you, but there is no modern day Reagan in the GOP…

  25. Asashii says:

    i think the dope smoking Towel from south park could beat Obama in 2012, but if they shove some Rhino down my throat like McCain, then i will do the same as 2008 not vote, if i have to choose between the lesser of two evil then i don’t choose at all. Cris Christie-Rick Perry ticket is the only one i like but thats not going to happen so unless one of these Canidates all-of-a-sudden have a Halo appear over their head then it looks like no vote will be my vote.