2012 Will Be a Referendum on President Obama, Whether He Likes It or Not

By all accounts, the Obama campaign wants to avoid having the 2012 election turn into a referendum on the president’s first term, hoping instead to turn it into a choice between the two major parties’ candidates and visions for the country’s future. But if history is any guide, that will be an uphill battle.

Some presidential elections do consist of a head-to-head comparison of the candidates: They just happen to be the ones involving non-incumbents, candidates whose competence to serve as president can only be predicted. In those instances, each voter’s choice typically reflects an affirmative evaluation of the preferred candidate rather than rejection of the other candidate. In 2008, for example, 77 percent of Obama’s supporters said that they were casting their votes in favor of him, not against McCain, while 64 percent of McCain’s supporters said that they were casting their votes in his favor, not against Obama.

Campaigns involving an incumbent look very different. When a president is running for reelection, the electorate is primarily motivated by its judgment of the incumbent’s job performance. Consider some Pew Research Center data on recent presidential contests.

In the spring of 1992, two-thirds of George H. W. Bush’s supporters said that they would be casting their vote for him rather than against Bill Clinton, while two-thirds of Clinton supporters said their vote reflected opposition to Bush. In the spring of 1996, 60 percent of Clinton’s supporters said they would be voting for him rather than against Bob Dole, while 60 percent of Dole’s supporters said their vote reflected opposition to Clinton. Early in 2004, more than 80 percent of George W. Bush’s supporters were for him rather than against John Kerry, while two-thirds of Kerry’s supporters were motivated by opposition to Bush.

To be sure, these numbers tend to shift during the general election as the contenders become better known. Still, by Election Day in 1996, only 47 percent of Dole’s supporters said that they were casting their vote in his favor rather than against Clinton; by election day in 2004, only 43 percent of Kerry’s supporters said that they were casting an affirmative vote for him.

Now look at the most recent Pew results, which showed Obama in a tie with Mitt Romney. About three-quarters of Obama’s support is for him rather than against Romney, while more than two-thirds of Romney’s supporters say they will cast their votes against Obama rather than for Romney. Try as Obama might to channel populist anger against the economic policies that the eventual Republican nominee is proposing for the future, most Americans are going to make up their minds based on what they think about the policies the president has already enacted over the previous four years.

In a general election contest against an unpopular incumbent (one with an approval level significantly below 50 percent), the main hurdle that the opposition candidate needs to clear is that of competence. In 1980, for example, voters made their decision in two distinct stages. Between late January and mid-April, Jimmy Carter’s approval rating sank from 58 to 39 percent and never exceeded 43 percent for the remainder of the campaign. This represented stage one, in which the voters concluded that they didn’t want to return Jimmy Carter to the Oval Office for a second term—if they had a reasonable and non-threatening alternative. In the second stage, which occurred immediately after the sole presidential debate, they decided that despite their earlier doubts, Ronald Reagan represented such an alternative. Reagan’s humorous and avuncular affect in the debate dispelled fears that he might be the second coming of Barry Goldwater. To filch a phrase from Mike Huckabee, Reagan was clearly a conservative, but he wasn’t angry about it.

That’s why the Republican nominating contest matters—indeed, why it may well determine the outcome of the general election. There’s scant evidence right now that a majority wants to reelect Obama, whose approvals ratings are currently averaging around 44 percent. (I can find no evidence of a successful reelection campaign involving an incumbent president with an approval rating lower than 48 percent on election day.) But if the Republicans insist on choosing a candidate whose self-presentation reinforces a hard-edged conservatism, they may make history and lose anyway.

Granted, Mitt Romney is a flawed candidate whose vulnerabilities can be exploited, especially in intra-party combat. But in a general election, he has a better chance than any other Republican of reassuring persuadable voters that he represents a safe and competent alternative to the incumbent. Unless the economic environment changes a lot during the next twelve months, skepticism about Obama’s performance as president should be enough to propel Romney to victory, if not one of landslide proportions.

Republican primary voters, of course, are free to choose whomever they want to serve as their nominee. Early in 1980, let us recall, many Democrats believed that Reagan would be easier to beat than his principal rival—George H. W. Bush—because his brand of conservatism would alienate swing voters. One might argue that history is repeating itself, with Romney filling the role of Bush 41 and Rick Perry starring as Reagan.

Maybe. But having spent more than two years as Walter Mondale’s issues director during his presidential campaign, I got to size up Reagan’s record and political skills. Rick Perry isn’t his equal as governor, and he certainly isn’t his equal as a candidate. If circumstances are dire enough next November, he might win anyway. But I very much doubt it.

Over the next six months, then, Republicans will decide how much they want to win the 2012 election. Indeed, the party’s fate next November is in its own hands—and to that extent, very much out of President Obama’s.