Obama’s Short Term Hope: A Republican Primary Long War
The Washington Post today reports that President Obama’s reelection team are seeing glimmers of hope going into 2012. Will a long war in the Republican Primary further help Obama’s chances?
However tenuous the indications of recovery are, Obama’s team have latched onto some relatively positive economic data to help buoy Obama’s campaign narrative. They also see the data as a sign the President’s standing with voters is much better than it was mere weeks ago despite stubborn poll numbers suggesting otherwise. Nevertheless, with unemployment dropping to 8.6 percent, payroll additions from September and October revised upwards, and a recent boost in consumer spending helping GDP, Obama is in a better position to convincingly attack congressional obstructionism of his economic policies. Indeed, his speech on the economy in Kansas last week was as clear a delineation as ever about the economic future Obama hopes to secure through a second term in office. If congressional Republicans fail to compromise with Democrats and secure an extension of the payroll tax cut, Obama will be able to go directly to the American people and quite reasonably argue that Republicans have impeded tax relief for millions of middle and lower income workers.
Yet the same glimmers of hope in economic data may also be seen as causes for worry. One must always remember the measure of unemployment excludes individuals who have stopped actively looking for work. Yesterday Ezra Klein’s Wonkbook pointed out that the real unemployment rate is 11 percent, and, as a series of analyses in November warned, a second recession in Europe threatens to weaken an already nebulous US recovery. Lower than expected retail sales in November confirm that consumer spending–a leading indicator of economic recovery–remains skittish when the job market is doing only marginally better than treading water.
In the absence of stellar economic news, Obama can only hope that the Republican primary experiences a long war akin to the one he fought with Hillary Clinton in the first half of 2008. Right now there’s a good chance of that happening, and for it to be spread across three or four candidates, making whoever is left standing with the nomination all the more road weary.
Why an enduring contest between three or four candidates as opposed to a clear cut battle between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney? There are several factors at play. The latest polling numbers show Romney trailing Gingrich poorly in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. There could be a lot of fluidity in the second and third places across those states. An upset win or strong second place in Iowa for Ron Paul will undoubtedly give his candidacy momentum, especially in libertarian-friendly New Hampshire. As for Rick Perry, this Politico article makes a strong case for why he shouldn’t be counted out yet despite his many campaign and debate gaffes. Perry is basically the Southern candidate, which means if he works his superior retail skills he just might pull a comeback in South Carolina. Despite Gingrich’s tenure as a Georgia congressman, many Southern Republicans are as wary of him as they are of Mitt Romney. Perry could conceivably win a string of Southern primaries, making wins in the Midwest and West all the more urgent for Romney and Gingrich while simultaneously failing to produce a definitive delegate lead for either candidate.
The last time a presidential primary was this fluid was arguably the Democratic primary in 1992, a primary that was centered around the future of the Democratic Party much like the 2012 Republican primary is centered around ideological purity. Second tier candidates like Michele Bachmann have had an outsized influence this primary season, and have, especially during the debates, reinforced the idea that ideological purity is as important as electability. A wide spread of delegates will mean that whoever is running a close third will have greater influence when they bow out and endorse one of the remaining candidates. Given the animus between Perry and Romney, it is likely Perry would endorse Gingrich if Gingrich ends up tying or narrowly leading Romney by April. If Romney fails to secure the nomination, it would symbolize the final decline of ‘moderate’ leadership in the national Republican Party and would be a gift to Obama heading into the general election. Despite the fact that Obama’s approval rating remains mired in the low 40s, most polls have not backed up Gingrich’s electability claims.
Finally, even if the nominee becomes clear by April, the bloodletting could still continue. Recent statements by Ron Paul suggest that any insurgency he achieves–however short lived within the primary season–could form the basis of a third party candidacy. That would be a major problem for whoever the Republican nominee is. The central theme of the Republican primary has been the courtship of Tea Party and generally far right voters. For the Republican nominee to suddenly have to go through the tribulations of shoring up his right flank all over again in the event of a Ron Paul third party bid would deprive the nominee of an easy pivot toward the political center. This will further re-frame the election as one about competing visions for the role of government, sparing Obama of a reelection campaign completely contingent upon the state of the economy.
Of course, a bruised Republican nominee won’t necessarily translate into strength for Obama. If the economy gets rocked by events in Europe or by some unforeseen market calamity, all hopes for an economic silver lining during his reelection bid will vanish. But if Obama can secure an extension of the payroll tax cut and take credit for it, he’ll be better able to campaign more confidently on his record. As encouraging as a destructive Republican primary may prove to be, the electoral benefit will be razor-thin without some genuine success stories to strengthen Obama’s reelection narrative.
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