Obama blows the starting whistle – who will his opponent be?
-Andrew Hammond is an Associate Partner at Reputation Inc, and was formerly a Special Adviser in the UK Government and a Geopolitics Consultant at Oxford Analytica. The opinions expressed are his own.-
With U.S. President Barack Obama announcing his re-election campaign bid on Monday, the unofficial starting whistle for the 2012 election has been blown.
In a highly unusual move, Obama will be the first U.S. president in modern history to place his campaign headquarters outside of the Washington DC and suburban Virginia corridor (basing it instead in his home city of Chicago). The president hopes that this break with recent precedent will help recapture the spirit of his hugely successful 2008 campaign as he seeks to become the first candidate in US history to raise $1 billion in presidential campaign finance.
Monday’s announcement aside, the most striking feature of the presidential race so far is the complete absence of any Republicans officially announcing their candidacies to challenge Obama. This is especially interesting as, with the U.S. economy still weak, the president remains vulnerable to defeat in 2012.
A sizeable number of Republicans are touted as potential candidates, including Senator John Thune; former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney; former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin; former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee; and former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has so far moved closest to announcing, by last month launching an exploratory committee.
One key factor which will help determine whether Republicans win back the White House in 2012 is whether the party will speedily and decisively unite around a nationally credible candidate. A model here would be the 2000 cycle when George W. Bush emerged strongly from a wide field of candidates well before the official nominating season began with the Iowa caucus.
In this context, do omens look good for Republicans in 2011/12, or might the party be on the verge of a turbulent and indeed potentially divisive contest?
Predictions are always fraught with difficulty, but if the 2004 and 2008 nomination cycles are any benchmark, the Republican race may prove unusually volatile and perhaps drawn out too. Uncertainty may only be intensified by the Tea Party’s growing influence in Republican ranks.
Of course, US presidential nomination contests always have unexpected twists and turns. What distinguished the 2004 and 2008 cycles, however, was the relative difficulty of predicting the eventual major party nominees on the eve of the official nominating season (with the exception of George W. Bush in 2004 whose Republican re-nomination was uncontested):
- In both 2004 and 2008, the Democratic Party’s early front-runner — defined as the candidate both leading in national polls of party identifiers on the eve of Iowa caucuses; and raising more campaign finance than any other candidate in the twelve months before election year (Howard Dean and Hilary Clinton respectively) — was ultimately beaten by initially less-favoured candidates (John Kerry and Obama respectively).
- Equally, in the 2008 race for the Republican contest, John McCain emerged as the nominee, despite the fact that other candidates (Rudy Giuliani and Romney) had greater national poll strength and/or fundraising prowess before the official nominating season began.
There appears no common, overriding factor accounting for the success of Kerry, Obama, and McCain. For instance, much of the Vietnam veteran Kerry’s surge was fuelled by ‘late’ concerns amongst Democrats that Dean’s lack of national security credentials made him unelectable against Bush in the midst of the ‘war on terror’.
By contrast, Obama’s success was driven, in significant part, by a factor that was genuinely new in the post-2000 cycles: the fundraising and wider campaigning potential of the internet. This was exceptionally utilised by his insurgent campaign to overcome the formidable strength of Clinton’s organisation.
Far from being the norm, the collapse of these early front-runners in 2004 and 2008 was most unusual in the last three decades of presidential races. Indeed from 1980 to 2000, the eventual nominee in eight of the ten Democratic and Republican nomination races that were contested (i.e. in which there was more than one candidate), was the pre-primary front-runner.
This was true of Jimmy Carter, the Democratic nominee in 1980; Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate in 1984; George H.W. Bush, the Republican nominee in 1988 and 1992; Bill Clinton, the Democratic candidate in 1992; Bob Dole, the Republican nominee in 1996; Al Gore, the Democratic nominee in 2000; and George W. Bush, the Republican nominee in 2000.
Moreover, in both of the partial exceptions to this pattern, the eventual presidential nominee led the rest of the field on one of the two measures:
- In the race for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, Ronald Reagan (who ultimately won the contest) led national polls of party identifiers, although John Connally was the leading fundraiser.
- In the battle for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, Michael Dukakis (who eventually won the race) raised the most funds, but was behind in national polls on the eve of the Iowa caucus to Gary Hart.
Prospects for an uncertain, and potentially drawn out race in 2011/12 may also be increased by the new-found influence in Republican ranks of the Tea Party. While Tea Party activists are sometimes believed to overwhelmingly support Palin, numerous opinion polls tell a different story.
Indeed, one potential outcome of the Tea Party’s rise, especially given the general disdain of its followers for the Republican establishment, might be the emergence of a strong contender without a major national profile. For instance, a November 9 Zogby national poll of Republican identifiers showed Chris Christie, the New Jersey Governor, with 19% of preferences, more than any other candidate. Christie scored highest of any candidate (26%) in the poll from those who said they were much more likely to vote for a Tea Party endorsed candidate.
It remains to be seen whether any such potentially insurgent Republican candidates will rival the pioneering nature of Obama’s 2008 campaign. If they do, however, it will only increase the prospects of an upset victory in the nomination race, and set up a potentially intriguing match-up with the president in next November’s general election.