Understandably, 2012 is a topic of constant interest to conservatives. Conservatives who want to turn the country around will not do so in 2010, no matter how many seats they pick up. The GOP’s chance to rid itself of Obama is 2012.
On slow news days, even the most insignificant story can become a big one if there’s a 2012 angle. However, the glut of 2012 stories reveals how mythologized presidential politics has become. New themes mix with outdated methodology to produce political myths. It’s time to clear up the confusion and take a look at the real story.
Myth: Barack Obama is toast. Barack Obama is guaranteed re-election.
While conservatives may wish the former and liberals hope the latter, neither is certain. History does tell us that since 1896, with one exception, every time a party has taken control of the White House they’ve held control of it for eight years.
But Obama’s policies seem reminiscent of the exception, Jimmy Carter.
The truth here lies in how Americans vote. American University Professor Allan Lichtman’s “keys to the White House” presidential election prediction system successfully predicted the winner of the popular vote for every election going back to 1860.
Lichtman offers 13 key conditions that favor the incumbent’s re-election. If eight or more of these are true, the incumbent will win. If seven or less are true, the incumbent will lose. All but two keys focus on issues (such as whether the administration has had foreign policy success) or factors that lend to massive voter dissatisfaction (such as the incumbent party suffering significant losses in the House of Representatives, or the formation of a third party.)
You can argue the particulars, but Lichtman’s basic point that voters make their decision based on performance is sound. If Republicans win in 2012, it will be because a series of things have gone wrong.
Reality: It’s too early to say.
History teaches that Obama’s naïve foreign policy and irresponsible management of the nation’s finances portend ill. The question is how soon will that disaster come. The recession of 1937 didn’t occur until the year after FDR won by a landslide. While the Gorelick wall played a key role in allowing 9/11, the attack on the World Trade Center didn’t happen until eight months after President Clinton left power. Thus, a disastrous trajectory will not necessarily play into an election campaign.
Myth: Romney’s next in line and the clear frontrunner.
From David Frum: “It was Mitt Romney, not Sarah Palin, who came in second in the 2008 contest — and the GOP has repeatedly turned next time to the candidate who finished second last time.” This is a favorite myth that places Mitt Romney as the sole frontrunner for 2012.
This “tradition” covers five open presidential nomination contests going back to 1980, with one exception in 2000, when George W. Bush (not Pat Buchanan) was the GOP nominee. This argument is quite superficial. Does anyone think George H.W. Bush was chosen in 1988 because he finished second to Ronald Reagan, rather than because he’d served eight years as Reagan’s vice president?
In 1996, Dole rolled to the Republican nomination by default. A December, 1992, CBS poll right after the election showed one point separating Dole and Jack Kemp, with James Baker and Dan Quayle in double digits. Kemp, Baker, and Quayle all passed on the race, leaving a race between Dole and men who had to spend millions to build name recognition. Dole already had it as a former candidate and the party’s Senate leader.
The lesson is not that Republicans will always go with a mythical next in line. Rather, Republican voters seek familiar candidates like Dole and John McCain while Democrats are drawn to novel candidates like Howard Dean and Barack Obama.
Reality: Huckabee, Palin, and Romney are co-frontrunners
Romney is far from the only known quantity. Mike Huckabee was right there with Romney. In no year since the beginning of the fabled “next in line” myth have two candidates been so close. Media reports go back and forth over who was “the runner-up.” Some say Romney and others Huckabee. Likewise, no unsuccessful vice presidential candidate has ever generated the electricity that Sarah Palin does. If two of the “big three” bow out, the third will be the front runner.
Myth: Sarah Palin’s poll numbers spell doom for her potential candidacy.
The latest Pew poll shows Americans split almost evenly on Palin’s favorable/unfavorable numbers, with moderates and Independents not digging Palin. Poll numbers like these allegedly show how doomed Sarah Palin is.
Reality: Polls and voters are fickle.
Hillary Clinton had a majority of Americans saying they didn’t want her to run for president. Exit polls, however, showed Mrs. Clinton would have done better than Obama against McCain, winning by 11 points. Ultimately, the question is not whether the poll numbers are incredibly damning (which they aren’t this far out from the election), but whether Palin can turn them around by the end of a long presidential campaign. Analysts may speculate, but the debate is ultimately over Palin’s ability, not the numbers.
Myth: Sarah Palin is finished after resigning as governor of Alaska.
With Governor Sarah Palin’s resignation as governor of Alaska, many feel that she is finished as a presidential hopeful. It may indeed mark the voluntary retirement of Sarah Palin, but I think her resignation is more likely to offend people in political circles than most voters.
Was it honorable for Palin to resign, to “bail out” on the people of her state, as Senator Lisa Murkowski put it? The fact of the matter is that if Palin chooses to make a presidential run, her approach may be more fitting than other political leaders in light of the reality that the preliminaries of the presidential campaign will require a lot of out of state travel in the coming year. Mitt Romney didn’t resign as governor of Massachusetts in 2006; he just spent 212 days out of state while holding the gubernatorial title. The question then is whether it is nobler in the eyes of men to quit a job you’re not going to have time to do, or to hold onto the job and not do it.
Perhaps we’d prefer Huckabee’s choice to ignore the presidential campaign until after his time as governor had lapsed. The result of Huckabee’s decision was that he found himself starting way behind Republicans who’d spent 2006 campaigning.
In Alaska, Palin faced an ethics system that allowed frivolous complaints to consume 80% of her time and energy as governor, as well as weighing heavily on her staff. Perhaps the most relevant example was one that was filed against Palin because of her speech to Indiana Right to Life at the end of Alaska’s legislative session. The lawyer who dismissed the claim said, “The fact that the governor traveled to Indiana to attend a dinner (and a breakfast meeting the next morning) did not take significant time, if any, away from the governor’s duties.” What this implies is that if an action does take significant time from the governor’s duty, it could be an issue.
As for Alaska, it’ll be fine. Adam Brickley pointed out that Palin actually extended her influence over the state by allowing her Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell to succeed her and thus extend her reforms. Parnell will run in next year’s gubernatorial primary as an incumbent. Parnell will be able to continue the agenda that both he and Palin shared without being distracted by an opposition that is determined to destroy Palin’s national career.
Some think Palin needed to seek a second term to increase her experience. In fact, in order to run for president she needed to not run for re-election. Alaska’s legislature meets for 90 days starting each January. The 2011 session would force Palin to delay announcing for president for a few months, a minor inconvenience. But the 2012 session would occur smack dab in the middle of the Alaska legislative session, and trying to do the work of a presidential candidate would definitely take significant time from a governor’s duties and lead to a more complex ethics case right in the middle of a presidential campaign.
Reality: The ball’s in Palin’s court.
Palin’s resignation raises some very reasonable questions. Does she have the mental toughness needed for national politics? Does she even want to run for anything again? These are legitimate questions, but we should wait for the answers.
In stepping aside, Palin quoted Douglas Macarthur: “We are not retreating, we are advancing in another direction.” Palin’s challenge in the coming months, if she hopes to have a political future, is to show that she hasn’t retreated and that she is continuing to fight for conservative values. If she does that, then I doubt people will care about the fact that she didn’t finish her last 17 months in office.