Is Romney a weak Republican nominee for president? You bet. But that doesn’t change the fact that Obama is also a very weak incumbent running for re-election. Not that it’s impossible, but running for reelection when you’ve got under 50% approval and a bad economy is not a good thing. I think odds are Obama will win as the economy is moving in the right direction (which matters a lot) and because, close as things may be, it is to Obama’s advantage that Romney strikes me as a weaker than average challenger. It’s easy to focus on the flaws of the Republican field during the primary season, but like most elections, when you get down to it– it’s the economy, stupid. Of course, it’s not 100% the economy, which is why the fact that Romney is a weak candidate is a good thing for Obama. Ezra had some nice thoughts on all this yesterday:
What kind of nominee will he [Romney] be?
At the moment, I’m going to put my money on “a stronger one than seems apparent right now,” for a couple of reasons. For one thing, there’s too much extrapolation from current trends. Yes, the economy has gotten better, and President Obama’s numbers have improved, over the last few months. But there’s no guarantee the same will hold in the summer. Remember that in 2011, the beginning of the year brought four straight months of strong job growth — as strong or stronger than what we’ve seen so far in 2012 — which then sputtered out. If the same happens later this year, Romney will suddenly look a lot stronger, and Obama a lot weaker, than many have come to expect.
Second, it’s possible that the GOP primary plays to Romney’s weaknesses, while the general will play more to his strengths. He’s got a big, top-heavy campaign that has been forced into asymmetrical warfare with smaller, lighter opponents. The dynamics of the primary are forcing Romney to unconvincingly adopt unpopular opinions that contradict what he’s done and said in the past in order to persuade an electorate that’s unusually concerned with purity. But in the general election, he’ll be facing another big, top-heavy campaign, and he’ll be able to run towards the center. Perhaps he’ll perform better under those conditions.
Third, Romney’s coalition might end up being broader than it appears. As Ron Brownsteinnotes, “Romney carried most voters who did not identify as evangelical Christians in each state except Oklahoma.” He’s struggling against evangelical Christians and voters who self-identify as “very conservative.” But will these constituencies really stay home against Obama? And, if they do come out, there’s the prospect that the very qualities that turn them off of Romney — at least, if you assume their issue is ideological rather than religious — could help him make inroads with the more moderate voters who will ultimately decide the election. Again, for the exact reason he’s weak in the primary, he could be stronger in the general.
Of course, Romney has significant weaknesses as well, which we are all quite familiar with. Ezra’s conclusion cuts to the chase:
Even so, though Romney has the worst poll numbers of any presidential nominee in recent history, Obama has the worst poll numbers of any incumbent president running for reelection in recent history. And we remain a closely divided country with a very fragile economy. Right now, Obama is leading Romney by more than five points in the Real Clear Politics polling average. But I would be very surprised if, in November, the final margin between the two candidates is more than three points in either direction.
I could see a scenario where the economy continues to improve at an increasingly rapid pace where Obama exceeds a 3 point margin or one where we ground to a halt (hello, Europe) where Romney wins by more than three. But, in all likelihood we are looking at a close election. If current trends continue apace, I expect Obama to be on the winning side of that small margin (something like 50-48), but that’s a mighty big “if.”