Memo to the GOP: You Need Independents

Republican presidential candidates seem to have forgotten that moderates will vote in 2012. Has the party become so conservative it can't beat a weakened Obama?

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The 2012 presidential election is shaping up to be one of oddest in memory and potentially far more dramatic than one might guess. Obviously, the general election is still more than 14 months away -- and, in politics, and for that matter anything involving human behavior, predictions are dangerous. But the dynamics that seem to be emerging are fascinating.

On one hand, we have an incumbent president with dismally low job-approval ratings; his signature legislative accomplishment of health care reform remains very unpopular, and he is presiding over an enormously weak and worsening economy. This is a combination sufficiently bad to prevent any president's reelection.

On the other hand, we have an opposing party whose center of gravity and energy levels have swung so far to one side of the ideological spectrum as to have been designed to alienate the independent and swing voters, the people who will effectively decide this presidential election. To put it more simply, this election is the Republican Party's to lose, and yet, they may pull it off, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

It's hard to argue with the proposition that President Obama is extremely weak heading into his reelection campaign. Though presidential job-approval ratings don't begin taking on predictive value until about a year before the actual election, his 40 percent Gallup job-approval rating for the week ending July 14, with 52 percent disapproving, is not good. Although 74 percent of Democrats approve the job he is doing, among independent voters, a group he carried by 8 percentage points in 2008, just 36 percent approve; among Republicans, only 9 percent approve.

In the end, upwards of 90 percent of Democrats will likely end up voting for Obama just as more than 90 percent of Republicans will end up opposing him; it's that independent group that will likely make up all the difference. Americans are known to vote their pocketbooks, and the economy is almost inevitably the dominant issue. The August 11-14 Gallup Poll that got all the attention (the one that showed that only 26 percent of Americans approved the job Obama was doing handling the economy) indicated that his approval rating among independents on handling the economy was just 23 percent--on creating jobs, 24 percent. Those are ugly poll numbers, consistent with a president losing reelection. Yes, President Reagan had some awful job-approval numbers in the first half of 1983. but by this point they had turned up above where Obama is today and didn't drop to this level for the duration of his reelection campaign. In short, Reagan had already turned the corner by now.

Then look at the economy itself. The latest Blue Chip Economic Indicators survey of top economists paints a gruesome economic background for the unfolding campaign. Keeping in mind that the economy, as measured by gross domestic product, needs to grow at an annual rate of at least 3 percent to create any meaningful net new jobs, the Blue Chip survey shows a consensus forecast of GDP growth of just 1.8 percent for calendar year 2011 and 2.5 percent for 2012. Indeed, the forecast for the third and fourth quarters of next year are just 2.8 and 2.9 percent. Unemployment for this calendar year is expected to average 9 percent; 8.7 percent for next year, 8.7 and 8.5 percent for the third and fourth quarters of next year. So looking through a telescope just at Obama and his reelection prospects, it would be easy to conclude that he is likely to be a one-term president.

But after spending almost a week in Iowa watching the debate and the Republican contenders traverse the Hawkeye State, one can easily conclude that Republican candidates have decided that there will be no independent or moderate voters casting ballots in November 2012 and that the party of Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, George H.W. Bush, and even Reagan (who raised the debt limit 18 times and, yes, went along with a number of tax increases) no longer exists. That Republican Party would seem well poised to win under these circumstances. The contemporary descendants of that party would include former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman as well as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty--who dropped out of the race after a distant third place showing in the Iowa Straw Poll behind Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas. A candidate representing that legacy GOP tradition would seem to be very well positioned to take advantage of the lousy economy and disillusionment with Obama. But whether Bachmann; or Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who entered the race the day of the straw poll and didn't officially compete; or Paul, who was narrowly edged out in the balloting by Bachmann, can win-- hmm, this could be a very interesting race and more competitive than it ought to be. Most would agree that Paul, who turns 76 this week, is more of a cause than a real candidacy, advocating an agenda that is more libertarian than conservative. But the fact that he fares so well in various straw polls around the country just reinforces the argument that the base of the GOP has somewhat more exotic points of view than most relatively centrist or nonideological independent voters.

Indeed with the Republican Party moving as far right as it has, probably two-thirds of its members could be legitimately described as either tea party or very, very conservative on social and cultural issues, the turf that Perry and Bachmann occupy. That is where both the mass and the energy of the party are. But can someone from that most conservative two-thirds of the GOP win those swing voters who reside between the 40-yard lines?

At some point in this process, Republican voters are going to have to choose between their hearts and their heads. Do they want to nominate someone who projects the dominate philosophy, energy, and spirit of the party and run a high risk of losing, or do they go with their heads, compromising (yes, that dirty word) that energy and go with someone who might win a majority of the independent votes?

It was easy to dismiss former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a lightweight, but Perry and Bachmann are not so easily dismissed. Whether either are your cup of tea or not, both are clearly people with formidable political skills, and either one could capture that zeitgeist that exists in the GOP. Both have very visible shortcomings, but one of them could very well end up as the Republican nominee.

Now, that would be a hell of a presidential election.

Image credit: Larry Downing/Reuters