The decline of incumbency and the rise of third-party spoilers
U.S. forces are fighting three costly, inconclusive wars; unemployment is 8.8 percent and the president’s new budget proposal would double the national debt in a mere 10 years. What a great moment for Barack Obama to declare for reelection.
Obama enters the 2012 race as the clear favorite. His poll numbers are weak but his public respect is solid; his money position is outstanding; even people like me, who think runaway federal borrowing is an error of historic proportions, admire the president. I can see myself pulling the lever for him in 2012, as I did in 2008.
Set aside zip code analysis and Electoral College positioning — what two leading indicators should give Obama pause? The decline of incumbency and the rise of third-party spoilers.
Presidential incumbency brings many advantages, not least of which is command of the nation’s attention. White House incumbents standing for reelection are 21-7 in American annals.
But recent trends matter most, and recently, incumbents have been on a mere 3-3 streak. Ronald Reagan (1984), Bill Clinton (1996) and George W. Bush (2004) were reelected. But Gerald Ford (1976), Jimmy Carter (1980) and George H. W. Bush (1992) were defeated when standing for reelection with all the powers and advantages of incumbency. Once, Americans almost always voted to retain an incumbent chief executive. Not anymore. Lately voters have been ornery.
Now factor in spoiler candidates who run for reasons of ego, knowing they can’t win. Carter lost because a third-party vanity candidate, John Anderson, siphoned off liberal voters. The elder Bush lost because a third-party vanity candidate, Ross Perot, siphoned off conservative voters. Plus, in 2000, a third-party vanity candidate, Ralph Nader, threw the election to the younger Bush, away from Al Gore, who prevailed in the popular vote.
That’s three of the last seven presidential elections swung by third-party candidates who were in the race mainly as acts of self-flattery. We live, after all, in an era in which personal promotion often trumps substance.
Right now a three-way 2012 race seems unlikely. But it’s only April 2011. In April 2007, no one was taking a certain junior senator from Illinois seriously as a presidential aspirant.
Suppose Michael Bloomberg — who was a Democrat, and then a Republican, and now is an extremely wealthy Independent — ran a vanity third-party campaign for the White House. He could gain traction as a protest vote for disenchanted Obama supporters. Mr. President, I’d appoint Bloomberg to something important ASAP if I were you.
And what of the likely opposition field? In alphabetical order:
Michele Bachmann. If this nut job gets anywhere near the Oval Office, there will be a mass migration to Canada. Democratic campaign strategists are rooting for Bachmann — she gets the Republican nomination, and the Obama reelection becomes a walkover.
Haley Barbour. A flaming hypocrite, Barbour denounces government spending yet lavishly wastes taxpayer funds on himself.
Newt Gingrich. A blazing-torch-visible-from-orbit hypocrite, it’s hard to believe even one Republican woman will vote for Gingrich, and women are increasingly important to the GOP. Not clear why any man would vote for him, either.
Mike Huckabee. A charming guy with potentially broad appeal. His current job as a cable commentator offers a lot more longevity than being a candidate.
Jon Huntsman Jr. Nobody’s heard of him. He’s an engaging public speaker who makes a fresh impression with a fascinating personal story. Sound like anyone we know four years ago?
Sarah Palin. Her grasp of public affairs is better than pundits acknowledge. But what is her substantive achievement? Palin quit on her first term as Alaska governor. Couldn’t take the pressure of even a single term running a state with one-quarter of one percent of the country’s population. Has tremendous potential for a meltdown.
Tim Pawlenty. No big negatives, which is deceptively important. Not clear what he stands for beyond his own career.
Mitt Romney. Bowled a gutter ball in the 2008 Republican nomination race, but Reagan lost the Republican nomination in 1976 then won on his second attempt. Has uncanny ability to seem phony even when he’s telling the truth.
Rick Santorum. There’s no minimum to the number of votes Santorum could draw.
The wild card:
Michael Bloomberg running as a Republican. This would require significant bridge-building with a party he theatrically resigned from. Paired with a social-conservative running mate, Bloomberg as a Republican might knock Obama from the White House.
Where’s the market opportunity in the contemporary American political marketplace? There is no prominent Roe-supporting, experienced, centrist Republican who’s gone after teachers’ unions and government-worker pensions. There will be if Bloomberg returns to the GOP.
Photo: A screen capture image from a video announcement of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign that was launched on April 4, 2011. Obama, a Democrat who won a sweeping victory over Republican Senator John McCain in 2008 with a message of change, said in a low-key email to supporters that he was filing papers to start his re-election bid in a formal way. REUTERS/http://www.barackobama.com/