Can Republicans Beat Obama?

All of the plausible Republican contenders for 2012 have significant downsides.

Given the weak economy and his doubling down on Afghanistan and questionable civil liberties practices, President Obama would seem vulnerable to defeat in 2012. But you can’t beat somebody with nobody.

John Ellis of the Business Insider Politix blog asks, “Can Any One Of These People Beat President Obama?” His rundown is worth a read in full but I’ll just highlight the “Downside” for each of the Republican candidates he considers.

Mitt Romney: He’s a Mormon, he was the driving force behind Romneycare (the forerunner to President Obama’s national health care insurance plan, which is wildly unpopular with GOP primary voters) and he’s from Massachusetts (which is sort of like being from China as far as GOP primary voters are concerned).

Tim Pawlenty: Reputation as a lightweight.

Sarah Palin: Reputation as a lightweight, weak organization, second-tier staff, not smart enough.

Newt Gingrich: Personal “issues,” lack of discipline, never stops talking, yesterday’s news.

Mike Huckabee: Undisciplined at times, weak fund-raiser, second-tier organization, mixed messaging.

Mitch Daniels: Looks like the President’s barber, message depressing, cross-wise with social conservatives, unclear where he stands on national security issues.

Haley Barbour: Former lobbyist, no real message, not one original thought on national security issues, Iowa and New Hampshire not his kind of states.

Jon Huntsman: Moderate, Mormon, Obama appointee, no base, no message (yet).

Michele Bachmann: Not smart enough, no national experience, no organization, disliked by colleagues, boiler-plate message.

Rick Santorum: Campaign narrowly focused on social issues, no original policy ideas, weak organization, lack of presidential campaign experience, not an Iowa kind of guy.

If we leave out the candidates widely perceived as dumb, scuzzy, or creepy, then, we’re left with: Romney, Huckabee, Daniels, and Huntsman.  Daniels and Huntsman are virtual unknowns.  And it’s almost inconceivable that Huntsman can overcome the Obama connection and get the support of Republican primary voters.

I continue to think that Romney’s the odds-on favorite to win the nomination. It’s his “turn,” and he’s smart, disciplined, funded, and organized in a way none of the others can match. And I’m not convinced that Huckabee and Palin, the other plausible front-runners, are actually running. The RomneyCare/ObamaCare issue will hurt him in the primaries but not enough to overcome the weaknesses of the other candidates. And it’ll be a virtual non-issue in a general election contest with Obama.

Indeed, of all the candidates listed, Romney’s the only one whose downside applies entirely to winning the nomination. The “Mormon issue” is more problematic on paper but probably not in reality. Like any other prejudice, it’s easier to hold it generically than specifically. Of the ten folks mentioned, he’s the only one who can plausibly beat Obama in 2012. And that’s no slam dunk.

FILED UNDER: General
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.

Comments

  1. largebill says:

    What nonsense. I won’t waste my time dissecting each attack on the various potential candidates. I will say none of the folks at this level are dumb. Even Obama isn’t really dumb. Some candidates may be wrong on some issues & some can make a verbal gaffe or misstatement. However, that doesn’t make someone dumb. Like others I’ll laugh at misstatements & such, but I’m not as foolish as you’d have to be to believe Obama actually thinks there are 57 states or any of the other nonsense he says. It is telling that the two people Ellis believes are not smart are the two women. Huntsman buys into the global warming hoax yet Ellis doesn’t question his smarts? Hmm? Misogyny? Maybe. I have as much evidence that he is a misogynist as he does that Bachman isn’t smart. So using his standards it is a reasonable accusation to make.

    The biggest miscalculation in your article is this part: “The RomneyCare/ObamaCare issue will hurt him in the primaries but not enough to overcome the weaknesses of the other candidates. And it’ll be a virtual non-issue in a general election contest with Obama.” It rightfully will be an issue in the primaries, but it silly to say it’s a non-issue in the general if we nominate Romney. Obama-care should be a major line of attack against reelecting Obama. So, nominating someone who negates that argument is a big issue. If they play with the numbers enough and the media plays along (which they will) is selling the notion of an improving economy then Obama-care will be one of the two or three biggest issues of the campaign. Romney ends that discussion.

  2. @James:

    Given the weak economy and his doubling down on Afghanistan and questionable civil liberties practices

    But on two out of three of those items I don’t see the Republicans being in a position to capitalize. At the moment, at least, none are going to be calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan and I can’t see any of them promising better civil liberties behavior (if what you are alluding to are thing the Manning issue).

  3. James Joyner says:

    @largebill: There’s walking around “dumb” and “leader of the free world dumb.” They’re different standards.

    @Steven
    : To be sure. But Obama’s performance on core issues for the Progressive base may dampen turnout enthusiasm in traditional Republican strongholds Obama won last go-round.

  4. Franklin says:

    largebill: global warming hoax

    You lost me here. Only a dumb person would call it a “hoax.” And I’m talking about the “walking around” kind of dumb.

    AGW theories may or may not be correct which hinges on just how difficult it is to develop an accurate climate model, but to call it a hoax implies that the 97.5% of climate scientists who think humans are changing the environment are all intentionally lying. That’s one grand conspiracy, I’m telling ya.

  5. Gerry W. says:

    Just more tickle down and laissez-faire that we saw from Bush. Freedom, the constitution, and God and country. And “stay the course.” Which means ignoring globalization, the middle class, and the infrastructure.

  6. TG Chicago says:

    I somehow missed the fact that Huntsman is Mormon. I wonder if that’s why he’s getting in — to help Romney. If the race is largely split between lunatics and Mormons, the Mormons will seem much more attractive to Republican power brokers. It’s the Mormon Normalization theory.

    You’re right that Romney’s health insurance reform will make Obama’s reform a non-issue in the general election… but that’s exactly why many Republicans will want to nominate someone else. They want it to be an issue!

    I was surprised that George Will’s column about weeding the crazies out of the GOP nomination race allowed Barbour into the non-crazy column. Does the GOP really want to put a guy with Barbour’s racial baggage against Obama? Are they giving up on everybody other than Southern whites?

  7. Moosebreath says:

    Not that I want to see him as president, but I think you’re dropping Pawlenty too fast. If he can get past Iowa, and the field is winnowed to him, Romney (who seems unnominable, not merely due to Romneycare being his major accomplishment to date, but because of his backflips on social issues over the years) and some social conservative who has little to say elsewhere (Barbour, Santorum or even Huckabee or Palin), I think he’s got an excellent chance.

  8. EddieInCA says:

    Can Republicans Beat Obama?

    No.

    Next question.

  9. mantis says:

    It is telling that the two people Ellis believes are not smart are the two women.

    No, it’s telling that the two most popular women among Republicans are morons. Physically attractive morons.

  10. mantis says:

    Huntsman buys into the global warming hoax yet Ellis doesn’t question his smarts?

    Huntsman buys into the energy industry funded campaign to deny the reality of climate change? Didn’t know that.

  11. Tano says:

    “but I’m not as foolish as you’d have to be to believe Obama actually thinks there are 57 states ”

    Actually, the misstatement implied 60 states, not 57, as in ” I’ve visited 57 states so far, got three to go”.. Its pretty dumb, if you pardon the expression, to criticize someone and not even know exactly what you are criticizing them for.

    “if we nominate Romney. Obama-care should be a major line of attack against reelecting Obama.”

    That makes no sense. I agree completely with those who argue that RomneyCare is a fatal weakness for the Mittster. Obamacare opposition will be the central pillar of the overall GOP campaign, and every other candidate will be taking daily shots at Mitt on this issue, as they all seek to claim the title of being the one most opposed to it, especially the mandate. Mitt’s argument, which basically comes down to saying that it is ok to impose a mandate at the state level, but not at the fed level will be washed away like a sandcastle in a hurricane.

    If he does somehow manage to emerge with the nomination, he will take all the wind out of the sails of the anti-Obamacare movement. Obama will just say – hey, I implemented Mitt’s wonderful plan for the whole country, instead of just the lucky folks in MA. What a pathological flip-flopper this guy is who tries to trash his own greatest achievement because the politics of the moment compels it.
    I almost feel sorry for the guy…

  12. Tano says:

    ‘But Obama’s performance on core issues for the Progressive base may dampen turnout enthusiasm in traditional Republican strongholds Obama won last go-round.”

    Obama has done a good job, as far as the base is concerned. Sure, there are issues that he has failed to deliver on, but there are many others on which he has had success. It would be a pretty clueless fringe who would not be excited about another four years. And even for them, the vision of what the Republicans would bring, were they to win, would be so horrific – and we will be hearing all the details in white-hot rhetoric for the next two years – that there will be very great enthusiasm for Obama for that reason alone.

  13. sam says:

    What’s Mittens’s stand on the Grover Norquist no-tax-increases-ever-unto-the-ending-of-the-world pledge the signing of which is, apparently, a necessary condition for nomination in the GOP?

  14. matt b says:

    @tano

    Obama has done a good job, as far as the base is concerned.

    Seems to me that there are at least 2 bases — “walking around” and then the primary base (the hardcore progressives). The 2008 primary cycle on the republican side showed how important (and disruptive) that second group is.

    In terms of the “walking around” base he’s in relatively good shape. With the base that shows up in primaries, the hardcore, things are not as rosy. That said, if things look bad for the Republicans, the chances of a strong democrat rising to challenge Obama are even lower at this point (there is no Ted Kennedy). Short of Hillary leaving the SoS position, there’s no one in the party who can credibly make that run. And, at least in this case, the base will largely fall back in line (i.e. unless things go really south fast, Obama isn’t McCain).

    As for the list, I’d replace “stupid” with “not serious” – at least in Palin’s case. She isn’t interested in becoming president (or a Presidential candidate — I think she’d definitely do VP again given the opportunity).

    Running to win the Presidency would necessarily require her to alienate her base in the process. She’s too smart for that type of risk (and therefore too smart to spend too much money on the entire process). She still has to run, however, to stay relevant enough that she doesn’t have to work too hard in the off season.

  15. mantis says:

    With the base that shows up in primaries, the hardcore, things are not as rosy.

    This is based on what?

  16. jwest says:

    9% unemployment
    Gas heading for $4 +
    64% of independents think the country going in the wrong direction
    37% approval with independents
    Two ongoing unpopular wars
    Gitmo open for business
    Middle East in turmoil
    Trillion dollar deficits

    You bet. This guy is going to be hard to beat.

  17. @jwest:

    There is some validity to your list.

    However, unemployment is currently headed in the right direction (which helps Obama).

    Gas will be a real issue, yes.

    In re: independents–the question becomes why they are upset and whether Republicans can scratch them where they itch (so to speak).

    The war in question were started under a Republican administration, so it is unclear that the GOP candidate can claim to be coming to save the day on that one.

    Ditto on Gitmo

    Middle East is going to be a valid issue, yes.

    Likewise the deficit.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @jwest: Yes, I acknowledge all that in the opening sentence. But the point of the post is that you can’t beat someone with noone.

    Steven makes most of the points I would in responding. The problem is that none of the likely Republican candidates has any real alternative. If anything, they’re more gung-ho on fighting our wars and less interested in cutting spending. Certainly, they’re less interested in revenue generation through higher taxes.

  19. deathcar2000 says:

    revenue generation through higher taxes

    sounds like commie pinko talk

    the debate on revenue generation in conservative circles will revolve around how much to cut taxes to generate revenue. . . . .effective tax rate zero will produce the most revenue.

    once the zero taxes plan goes into effect revenue will be at an all time high.

    wheeeeee this is fun, look ma no hands!

  20. ponce says:

    Obama announced his candidacy of Feb. 10th of 2007.

    Not only are the listed candidates weak, they are running out of time.

  21. James Joyner says:

    @ponce:

    I think that’s a problem for the likes of Jon Huntsman and Mitch Daniels, who need to do something fast. Not having announced yet isn’t really a problem for those with existing name recognition and large media platforms.

  22. TG Chicago says:

    I wonder where jwest is getting poll data. Obama at 37% among independents? That’s not what I’m seeing.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/06/jobapproval-obama-inds_n_726281.html

  23. Ben says:

    This is based on what?

    I can only answer for myself as someone who voted for Obama in ’08. But not only has he failed to walk back the biggest civil liberties abuses of the Bush admin (like he said he would), he has doubled down on them.

    After saying that he would end torture of terrorism suspects, he goes on to argue for the right to assassinate US citizens with no oversight. He also continues the Bush practice of extraordinary rendition.

    After saying that he would close Guantanamo, here it is still open 2 years later, holding people who have never been charged with anything.

    He continues to use the Patriot Act to spy on US citizens without a warrant, and over 99% of the time, this is done for purely domestic drug investigations, which have nothing to do with terrorism

    After having his DOJ announce that they were “deprioritizing” marijuana enforcement, they continue to raid dispensaries and other marijuana producers and sellers.

    Has empowered the TSA to violate US citizens intimately as a condition of boarding an airplane, and now it’s starting for trains and buses, too.

    His administration’s treatment of PFC Manning. Enough said.

    His administration has made the following arguments before the Supreme Court (hat tip to Radley Balko here):

    Defendents should not have a right to DNA testing (if DNA is available)

    Prosecutors should be absolutely immune from suit in situations where they manufactured evidence to convict an innocent person

    Exigent circumstances permit police to enter a home without a warrant even if police unknowingly created those circumstances.

    Allow police to seize property they believe is connected to drug activity with little evidence, then hold it for up to six months before the owner gets an opportunity to win it back in court.

    Repeatedly argued to limit Miranda rights.

  24. Barb Hartwell says:

    The republicans have not brought anything to the table so far. I would not vote for any of the potential candidates. Going after the middle class is not going to get them elected. They better find a golden boy or girl soon or they will not have a chance.

  25. jwest says:

    TG,

    The poll numbers came from Reuters/IPSOS.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/09/us-obama-poll-idUSTRE7284SZ20110309

    Huffington Post rarely covers the bad news for Obama.

  26. Gerry W. says:

    jwest says:

    ***9% unemployment***

    Obama did not create this situation. We have long term structural problems in our country. Some unemployment is recessionary and others is due to globalization. Nothing was done under Bush when our factories were closing. It was just tax cuts and stay the course as Bush came to Ohio and said “free trade is good.” Now there is some 57,000 factories closed and some six million jobs lost.

    ***Gas heading for $4 +***

    We have not done anything for 30 years or more in this country on energy independence and both sides are at fault. We should be doing all the drilling possible. We should put natural gas into trucks. We need work on all alternative energies and have nuclear energy. Get away from Middle East oil.

    ***64% of independents think the country going in the wrong direction***

    We have been going in the wrong direction for years. It is the same old politics from both parties. We had years of tax cuts to the rich and we still lost the jobs. Republicans offer no answers either.

    ***Two ongoing unpopular wars***

    It is easier to get into war than to get out of. The situation would be no different with a republican president.

    ***Middle East in turmoil***

    The Middle East has always been in turmoil.

    ***Trillion dollar deficits***

    Dick Cheney “deficits don’t matter.”

    Obama may or may not be easy to beat, and I don’t really care, except that the opposing party has no answers either.

  27. Eric Florack says:

    The opposing party doesn’t have answers because they don’t really oppose. they tend to compromise.

    The only way that the GOP wins in the next election, is if they, and both those running in the next election, and those currently holding seats, act as conservatives. And I do mean constitutional conservatives not wannabees like McCain, for example. That means opposing the left. Period.

    Barring that, the GOP will not win. Which is probably a good thing. At the least, with the left holding all three branches of government, the world will know who to blame for our collapse.