- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The best thing Democrats have going for them in the 2012 election cycle is the deep division among Republicans over who should be their presidential nominee. Less than 60 days before the Iowa caucuses, the GOP is no closer to coalescing around a front-runner to take on President Obama than it was a year ago. A party that can’t agree on who stands the best chance of winning back the White House looks weak, indecisive and rife with internal ideological divisions that can deplete its energy, turnout and fundraising.

Despite Mr. Obama’s overwhelming failure to deal with a weak, jobless economy and unprecedented deficits and debt, recent poll numbers show he may give the GOP a much tougher fight than most party leaders are willing to acknowledge right now.

The Gallup Poll reported Thursday that he is essentially tied with a generic Republican candidate when registered voters are asked for whom they are more likely to vote in the presidential election next year.

Gallup said voters were split down the middle, with 42 percent choosing Mr. Obama and 43 percent going for the Republican candidate.

“This marks a change from October and September, when the Republican candidate was ahead, and underscores the potential for a close presidential race in the year ahead,” Gallup said.

Throughout much of this year, Mr. Obama’s support has been leaking like a sieve, with his job-approval polls falling into the low 40s and the high 30s, according to Gallup’s daily tracking polls. Lately, though, his numbers have been edging up a few digits to as high as 44 percent, while his disapproval score has dropped from 50 percent to less than 48 percent this week.

The economy remains weak. Unemployment is still at 9 percent - 16 percent if Americans forced to take part-time work or who have stopped looking for jobs are included. The budget deficit is still unprecedented at about $1.3 trillion or more. And forecasters say these numbers are not going to change significantly this year or next.

It’s not entirely clear what is affecting the poll numbers beyond the Democrats’ base rallying around Mr. Obama as the election year draws near. It also may be the result of the president shifting into an aggressive campaign mode, firing away at the Republicans with both guns blazing, that has excited his base and rekindled its support.

But the bitter Republican primary battle, fought out over an interminable number of televised debates with no clear leading candidate in sight, may be raising the Democrats’ hopes.

There is insider talk among some Democratic strategists about the possibility that the GOP’s dominant conservative majority may not be strongly united behind their nominee if it is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. So far, he has failed to fully rally Tea Party conservatives behind his candidacy.

This has been a messy election cycle for Republicans, with a large field of contenders, some of whom suffer from debilitating weaknesses, scandals or self-inflicted wounds.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry came roaring into the race with much promise and immediately soared in the party’s polls, only to see his candidacy fall apart in a series of pathetic debate performances. Wednesday night’s CNBC debate in Rochester, Mich., probably ended his candidacy after he couldn’t remember one of three departments he said he would abolish.

Business executive Herman Cain suddenly became the conservative choice when Mr. Perry collapsed, only to be hit by a battery of sexual-harassment allegations from at least five women. Mr. Cain has flatly denied all charges, and he says there probably will be more. It’s hard to see him going the distance, but thus far, his supporters have largely stuck with him.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the party’s most energetic idea man, saw his candidacy plunge into single digits not long after he entered the race, losing virtually his entire campaign staff after he and his wife foolishly took a week’s vacation cruise just as his campaign was gearing up.

He has made a bit of a comeback, largely on the basis of his intellectual and political prowess in the debates, which has conservatives giving him a second look.

Then there’s Mr. Romney, who has made a good impression throughout all of the debates, skillfully delivering his plans to rebuild the economy and drive down unemployment. He has, however, been unable to expand his support beyond 25 percent or so in most polls and was tied with Mr. Cain last week at 21 percent each.

But with the rest of the pack well behind them, Mr. Romney is still the odds-on choice to win his party’s nod, according to a new Gallup poll this week.

When Republicans and GOP-leaners were asked, regardless of which candidate they supported, who they thought would win the party’s nomination, 45 percent said Mr. Romney. Mr. Cain was a distant second at 13 percent.

Notably, nearly 40 percent of Mr. Cain’s supporters predicted Mr. Romney would be chosen as the party’s standard bearer, and 47 percent of Tea Party supporters said the same.

It is no secret that the Obama campaign fears Mr. Romney more than any other candidate because of his appeal to independent swing voters who will decide the outcome of the 2012 election.

President Obama’s fate will be decided in a handful of swing states that he won in 2008 and must hold again if he is to win a second term.

But a Quinnipiac Poll Thursday said that a majority of the voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida do not like the job he’s doing and most do not believe he should be re-elected.

In Pennsylvania, for example, voters disapprove of his job performance by 52 percent to 44 percent and by a margin of 50 percent to 46 percent do not think he deserves re-election. Stay tuned.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.

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