Why Romney Needs a Strong Obama: A Grand Theory for the GOP Primary

The more the economy stalls in 2011, the more impotent Obama seems, the more tea party voters are emboldened to vote with their hearts ... the stronger Obama is positioned in 2012.

615 romney reuters.jpgREUTERS

And like that, it's a three-person race. The Electable Mitt versus the Tea Party Darlings.

The GOP isn't so excited about the development. Two days after Michele Bachmann's Ames Straw Poll win and Rick Perry's surprise showing, conservative political analysts are starting to panic, the Atlantic Wire reports. A 14-point memo detailing Perry's flaws is making rounds in Iowa. Republican pollsters have moved from defending Bachmann to warning she "could sink the GOP," Ryan Lizza wrote. Even Karl Rove is beating the drum on "electability" five months before the first GOP primary.

If the Republican graybeards are panicking that the fringe is taking over the party, they have one person to blame. It's the president.
Here's a theory. The weaker Obama appears today, the more likely the Republican Party elects a tea party candidate like Bachmann or Perry, and the more likely they are to lose a general election to the president. By contrast, the stronger Obama seems today, the more likely the Republican Party trades in its zeal for strategy and nominates the most electable candidate, Mitt Romney, giving itself its best chance to take the White House.

The theory assumes that the Republican primary voter is a rational conservative, and in that order. He wants to elect somebody with small government principles and a conservative social record. But he also wants to win.

In other words, the conservative flank of the party can vote with its heart or its head.

If the president appears so weak that anybody could conceivably beat him, the heart wins the day. Tea party queen Bachmann and the small government evangelical Perry are the clear heart candidates. But if the same voter perceives the president as likely to beat Bachmann as he is to beat Perry, that voter is more likely to go to the ballot thinking long-term strategy, and the consensus safe-pick in a general election is clearly Romney.

What does this mean? It means the longer the president languishes in a bum economy trotting out stale job creation solutions while his poll numbers plummet, the more GOP voters think, "We don't need to worry about electability! We could run a stuffed animal against the president and win in November!" In a rabidly conservative primary season, Romney would have to run far to the right of his record to capture this emboldened conservative bloc. Even if he won, he would then have to pivot hard to the center to capture independents who sat out the GOP primary season. To run the race he wants to run, Mitt Romney needs Obama not to nosedive. He needs the White House to intimidate GOP primary voters just enough that some of them think, "We need somebody broadly electable to win. We gotta go Mitt."

And that's why Romney needs Obama to turn things around.

Strike that. If the party worried about electability, the entire GOP establishment should be rooting for a White House comeback in 2011. Next year's election might well depend on it.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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