It may not matter who wins the Republican primaries: with the economy in the can, Any Other Candidate may beat Obama.
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 30 August 2011 21.54 BST
For Democrats, the Republican field for 2012 looks like the gift that keeps on giving.
The candidates drawing the most attention – like Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul – are seen as far too extreme to stand a chance in a national presidential election. Meanwhile, the often assumed frontrunner, Mitt Romney, is a charisma-free zone who failed to win his party's nomination in 2008 and does not seem to have improved much. Scattered around these flawed leaders are strange fringe candidates – like Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain – and Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor turned reality TV star, who is more celebrity than politician.
The one GOP name with a compelling personal history and potential for a broad constituency of support – Jon Huntsman – has fizzled into virtual obscurity.
How can anyone from this Republican slate win? It is a reassuring thought for liberals. It is also a potentially catastrophic and complacent one. For Republicans do not have to win the 2012 contest in order to capture the White House. They just have to watch Obama lose it.
If you stop looking at perceived Republican weaknesses and, instead, look at Obama's problems, then the picture for 2012 looks a good deal less rosy. And in America's virtual two-party system, there is only one winner when Democrats lose: Republicans.
Democrat problems are serious. First, there is the issue of disillusionment among Obama's base. While liberal activists – where disappointment and anger with Obama is acute – are far from representative of Middle American voters, they do provide the key organisation for "get out the vote" action on election day. No one thinks that effort will be anywhere near as large or enthusiastic as it was in 2008. Indeed, some labour unions already plan to boycott the Democratic national convention in North Carolina.
Second, there are the polls. At a time when Obama should be lording it over any of this GOP field, simply on the basis of incumbency and name recognition, he is far from dominant. Perry – whom liberals deride as an unelectable "George W Bush on steroids" – was beating Obama in the key state of Florida in one recent survey. So was Romney.
Other polls in other states have Obama ahead, but what is striking about them as how Obama's number often lurks in the 40s, which is hardly a ringing endorsement. Even Ron Paul – whom the Republican establishment itself derides – was within two points of Obama in one recent national Gallup poll and within a single percentage point in a Rasmussen study. These numbers do not show Republican strength. But they do reveal Democrat weakness – and that should be given equal weight in a two-horse race.
Then just look at Gallup's tracking of Obama's job approval ratings. Over the summer, a grim gap has emerged with now some 55% of Americans disapproving of Obama's performance compared to an anaemic 38% who approve. This is undoubtedly linked to fears over a double-dip recession and the terrible persistence of cripplingly high levels of joblessness in the economy.
Economic conditions are often the key deciding factor in elections. By that metric, Obama's prospects look grim and could get a lot grimmer.
All of this could lead to someone as seemingly unlikely as Rick Perry becoming the 45th president of the United States and the most powerful person on earth. Seemingly "no hope" candidates have certainly won before due to their opponent's poor performance. Just think of Bill Clinton. The obscure Arkansas governor, hampered by a sex scandal, emerged from a pygmy field of Democrats in 1992 to take on George HW Bush, the incumbent victor of the Gulf war. But Bush ran a dreadful campaign, got hit by an economic downturn and then sideswiped by Ross Perot. Clinton won with just 43% of the vote.
Or look at 2000. It pitted the experienced Vice President Al Gore against the folksy cowboy candidate of George W Bush. Bush did not run a great campaign. But Gore ran a terrible one, failing even to win his home state of Tennessee. What should have been a romp for Gore, narrowed down to Florida, and eventually, Bush won via a court decision. You can argue about that event until blue in the face, but what is inarguable is that Gore should never have let Bush get close.
So, Democrats surveying the GOP's current "carnival of crazy" – where Perry questions evolution and Bachmann sees Hurricane Irene as a sign from God on government spending – should not feel victory is assured. The GOP does not have to wrest the White House away from Obama; he might just give it away.