But now I wonder whether the economy will drive this election to the usual extent -- or to the extent I had thought. More specifically, will the Republican Party nominate a candidate who can credibly compete for the independent voters whose support is so important in general elections?
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Independents represented 29 percent of the electorate in 2008. In last year's combined Gallup polls, though, they were 40 percent -- a record high. In 2000, Republican George W. Bush won the independent vote by 2 percentage points over Democrat Al Gore but narrowly lost the overall popular vote. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry actually carried independents by 1 point but lost the national popular vote by 3 points. The winner of the independent vote doesn't necessarily win the general election. But a candidate has to be very competitive among independents to have a chance to win. In 2008, the GOP's John McCain lost the independent vote by 8 percentage points and the election by 7 points.
Republicans should be concerned that Mitt Romney's numbers among independents have been tanking in recent weeks; he went from double-digit leads over Obama in some polls, including one by the Pew Research Center, to a 9-point deficit. He is considered the "most electable" Republican. If other GOP contenders have equally dismal or worse approval numbers among independents, you have to wonder whether this could end up as a choice election, with Republicans coming out on the losing end.
It is becoming quite clear that the conservative base of the Republican Party is driving the car. These voters prefer someone from the pull-no-punches brand of conservatism that created the Tea Party movement in 2009 and handed Republicans their House majority in 2010. It's certainly the GOP's right and choice to do that. The calendar, though, says 2012. The mood of the broader electorate -- and, specifically, independents -- appears to be very different. If you see any of Obama's advisers looking bruised from head to toe, it might be from pinching themselves in disbelief.
A month ago, in my Jan. 23 National Journal Daily column, I pointed out that if Romney lost the Florida primary, after being thumped by former Speaker Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, time remained for a new candidate to get into the race. Thirteen states still had open filing deadlines then; 10 of them still do. Those contests could not provide a new entrant with the 1,144 delegates needed to walk into the GOP convention with the nomination. But with enough delegates from states such as California, the new candidate would have a seat at a table and possibly some momentum.
If Romney loses Michigan and has a disappointing Super Tuesday, this scenario could happen. It is now quite plausible that Romney will lose the nomination. But it is much harder to see Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, or Ron Paul winning it.