Barack Obama is a vulnerable president. At 41 percent, his current approval ratings are lower than those of only Jimmy Carter at the same point in any post-World War II presidency. George W. Bush’s didn’t get this low until two months after Hurricane Katrina and at a time when Iraq was descending into civil war.
Yet Republicans seem poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Although a generic GOP candidate matches up well with Obama — winning by 4 or 5 percentage points in most surveys — the actual candidates for the nomination tend to do considerably worse. A recent Fox News poll has the president leading Gov. Rick Perry of Texas by 8 points; a CNN poll has the margin over Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota at 12.
What’s going on here? In 2010 Republicans were on a crest of a wave. The party won 63 U.S. House seats and regained control of the body. This was the largest swing in seats since 1938. It picked up six Senate seats, six governorships, and 21 state legislative chambers. Fueled by Tea Party energy and anger, there was a real sense that the country wanted to move rightward and was ready to jettison Obama.
Well, it turns out that the general views of Americans have not changed much over the past half dozen years. Roughly half of the respondents to polls believe that government should redistribute wealth by increasing taxes on the rich.
Despite massive budget deficits, the proportion of Americans who prefer a smaller government with fewer services over a bigger government with larger services has grown by only 3 or 4 percentage points — the advantage is now about 50-40. Over 70 percent of Americans still believe the country is on the “wrong track.” In other words, we are mad and have been for some time.
In 2008, we were mad at Bush and the Republicans. In 2010, we were mad at Obama and the Democrats. Now we have divided government and we’re just mad at everybody.
Another problem for the GOP is that the field of presidential aspirants does not seem very appealing. No one has secured the front-runner spot. Two of the most popular “contenders,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and executive and talk radio host Herman Cain, are admired for their directness and folksy styles. Cain, however, has no real campaign organization or political experience and Christie won’t run.
It is also interesting that the candidates with a greater understanding of public policy are languishing in the race: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, and former Utah Gov. and U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.
Finally, there is the mentality of the candidates. It makes sense to attack the president and characterize the country’s economic prospects as poor. But some of the bomb throwing scares voters off. Americans are a conservative bunch in a nonideological sense and want a president with a steady hand and practical bent.
Obama has shown himself lacking in many leadership qualities, but he often seems a reasonable and sensible guy when juxtaposed with Perry and Bachmann. Some of the off-the-cuff and frankly bizarre remarks uttered by Republican candidates make Obama appear presidential.
Then there’s the man who looks like the nomination is his to lose: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney checks many of the boxes. He has experience in several walks of life, having run a state and succeeded in business. He has a professional and well-financed campaign.
He has taken policy positions that appeal to independents and Democrats. He even looks like a president. Many Republicans may not be in love with him, but he inspires confidence and has the right temperament.
However, even Romney might not be able to close this deal. He does very well in the polls when pitted against Obama, but the president already has raised three times more money. There are also the questions of Romney’s banking ties and religion.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has tapped into a residual and deep antipathy to bankers among the American public. Romney co-founded the Wall Street investment firm Bain Capital in the 1980s.
In survey after survey, about one in five Republicans say they will not vote for a Mormon. Of the demographic groups used in these polls, only gays or lesbians, Muslims, and atheists do worse. Romney’s Mormonism is a particular liability with evangelical Christians, a group that needs to turn out in large numbers if the GOP is to win.
In a very close election, look for blatant economic populism coupled with a more subtle “dog whistle” anti-Mormon campaign from the Democrats. The strategy might just make the difference between victory and defeat. CJ
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science in the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University.