Friday, March 2, 2012

Will Romney Be a Credible Alternative?

Presidential campaigns in which there is an incumbent running for re-election are really about whether people want the incumbent to stay in office for 4 more years. There are generally two pre-conditions that must be satisfied in order for an incumbent president to lose: First, the incumbent needs to be unpopular. The most obvious measure of this is the president's job approval rating. When President Bush was re-elected in 2004, 51% of voters that day approved of the job he was doing (according to exit polls) and he received 51% of the vote. But job approval over 50% is not the only pre-condition. Even if the president is unpopular, the challenger must be a credible alternative. Generally, the party out of power does a good job of choosing someone who is a credible alternative. That, after all, is what the primary process is about. John Kerry satisfied that condition in 2004 but Bush was just popular enough to win a second term. Bob Dole was certainly a credible alterative in 1996 but President Clinton was quite popular. Bill Clinton was a credible alternative in 1992 and 41 was quite unpopular so Clinton won. A fair argument can be made that the last two major party nominees to not quite be credible alternatives facing incumbent presidents were McGovern (1972) and Goldwater (1964). Both lost in blowouts and both were facing presidents with strong approval ratings.

Let's take a quick look at where we are on these two measures. First, job approval:

Obama's job approval has improved steadily since the summer of 2011 and the improvement has arguably been driven by two things - improving consumer confidence and the ramping up of the Republican primaries which have made Obama look pretty darn presidential. Forgetting about the positive trajectory, it seems as if Obama is at a point right now where he would be likely to be re-elected if job approval were the only thing that mattered. But he's not a tremendous distance from a place where the second question, the credibility of the alternative, would matter. So let's take a look at the favorability ratings for one Willard Mitt Romney:

This is not good. Romney's unfavorables have shot up in the last few months. To give that the most negative spin, we might say that just as the American public has gotten to know Romney better and just as the American public has had to start digesting the idea of Romney as a potential nominee and a potential president, they have found more and more to dislike about him.

UPDATE: First Read posts favorability numbers for some recent party nominees. Romney compares rather badly. Most notably, John Kerry (also trying to beat a somewhat vulnerably incumbent) was at 42/30. To be fair though, Kerry already had the nomination effectively locked down for a few weeks by this point. I expect Romney's numbers to improve at least a little once the party rallies around him. But he still won't be where Kerry's numbers were and Kerry ... ya know ... lost.

A more sympathetic read of Romney's numbers might be that this has been a bruising primary and, when it is over, Romney's numbers will start to improve. That's probably true to some extent. But one thing about unfavorable numbers is that it is particularly hard to move the unfavorable numbers down. Voters who don't have a strong impression can certainly be brought over. Voters who do have a strong impression are hard to move. And negative impressions are harder to change than positive impressions.

The 2012 election is going to be about Obama ... as long as Mitt Romney is a credible alternative. If he's not, then Obama has a bit more room for error with the economy, Iran, gas prices, whatever. In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost because voters did not approve of the job he was doing but that was not enough. It was Reagan's credible performances in the debates and in the campaign generally that allowed voters to vote for him in the general election. It is a long way to go until November. But Romney has not yet passed that threshold and he seems to be moving in the wrong direction right now.

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