Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Trip Inside the Republican Poll Numbers

In one of the more painful ironies of the Obama administration, President Obama's election was guaranteed by the onset of the Great Recession which put the newly elected administration squarely behind the eight ball even before Obama was inaugurated. A bad economy, go for broke opposition from Mitch McConnell, and the rise of the Tea Party movement have combined to make every step of the Obama administration seem like a exercise in pain tolerance.

What they've really needed is some easy scores.

And it looks like they're arriving.

But it looks like the Obama administration can finally see a little bit of daylight. Last week, they got very encouraging poll numbers in relation to the Republicans. President Obama was leading Mitt Romney by 7% in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll and had a whopping 22 point edge over Sarah Palin. Those numbers have some depth as well. Over 70% like Obama personally, a solid majority thinks he has the right policies, and the Democrats have an 11% edge in party identification.

What makes the NBC/WSJ poll particularly good for the president is that it came out BEFORE the current round of Obama "wins" in repealing DADT, passing the START treaty, and getting health assistance for 9-11 Responders. When the poll was taken, the Obama administration was still at bottom from the mid-term election shellacking and should therefore have some flexibility given that Obama is still well-liked personally. If the administration continues to generate positive news, Obama's numbers will trend upward.

The question is whether there's wiggle room in relation to Republican numbers as well . . . in particular, those of Sarah Palin.

My opinion of the 2012 election is that Sarah Palin will be the Republican nominee and Obama will beat her easily in the general election. I don't see how the other top tier GOP candidates can be competitive with Palin. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee might poll better than Palin against President Obama now, but they

But that's not likely to hold up.

Established Republican candidates folded up pretty badly in Republican primaries against even the weakest Tea Party opposition. It didn't even take that much negative advertising for fringe candidates like Christine O'Donnell and Joe Miller to roll up primary victories over established Republican incumbents like Mike Castle and Lisa Murkowski. With Sarah Palin, it's going to be different. Palin already has a strong conservative base, she's going to have LOTS of money for attack ads, and Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are big juicy targets. In the case of Romney, Massachusetts passed Obama-style health reform while Romney was governor and Romney took credit for the legislation as well as signed it. According to at least one poll, Mitt Romney is already starting to sink among conservatives. When matched against three other Republicans, Romney finished last in seven out of eight states and that eighth state was Michigan where Romney's father had been governor. Romney scores best among Obama and would be at least plausible among moderate and independent voters. But moderate and independent voters don't matter all that much in a lot of Republican primaries.

With Huckabee, it's worse. While governor of Arkansas, Huckabee pardoned a man named Maurice Clemmons who went on to kill four cops in Seattle last year. Given that the attack ads on Huckabee are going to write themselves and that Palin hasn't been afraid of attacking other Republicans, she's going to be pounding away at Huckabee's pardon of Maurice Clemmons every ten minutes on every television station in every Republican primary state in 2012.

It's true that Romney and Huckabee could run scorched-earth attack ads against Palin, but that would be far more risky. As Jack Conway found out in Kentucky, both the media and the public have far more tolerance for brual attacks by conservatives than they have on brutal attacks on conservatives like Conway's Aqua Buddha ads. My bet would be that Romney and Huckabee would be constrained to observe Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment of not attacking other Republicans while Palin would be free to savage them.

Sometimes life just isn't fair.

Of course, it's not like Romney and Huckabee should give up. There's the real possibility that Palin will self-destruct and they'd both want to be in position in case she does. But if Palin keeps it together, she'll win in a walk because fringe possibilities like Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, John Thune, and Rick Santorum have a better chance of being nominated by the Socialist Workers Party than the Republicans.

I would say that Palin's nomination is pretty much written into stone if she decides to run and it already looks like she's running.

The question is whether there is any more wiggle room in Palin's bad general election numbers. I think so. Sarah Palin has nearly universal name recognition and a popular base in the conservative movement with 77% of conservatives approving of her. She also has a great deal of political star quality and will attract the same kinds of enormous sums of money from popular conservatives that Barack Obama raised from his liberal base in 2008.

Of course, Palin's big problem is her high negatives. The recent polling has 59% of the electorate saying that they would refuse to vote for her and over 60% saying that she's unqualified to be president. The negativity isn't just a matter of distaste for her among liberals and minorities either. Peggy Noonan, Christine Todd Whitman, and other establishment conservatives have been criticizing a potential Palin candidacy on the grounds that Palin does not have the policy/intellectualy qualifications needed to be president and that her criticisms of the "lamestream media" and Michelle Obama indicate that she is not temperamentally suited for the position either. Sixty-nine percent of voters being polled don't think that Palin is qualified to be president. Likewise, 30% of John McCain voters claimed that they wouldn't vote for Palin.

But these numbers aren't immutable.

In the same poll, 42% of respondents said they wouldn't vote for either Barack Obama or Michael Bloomberg either.

What this means to me is that the poll that has Obama beating Palin 55-33 isn't real. What's most likely real is that Palin would start with the 42% that said they're a definite "no" on Obama. The question then is whether Palin can attract the other 7% needed to get to 49% and win an election (where 2% of the vote would go to fringe candidates).

The answer has to be yes.

Much of the perception that Palin isn't qualified is tied to her disastrous interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric during the 2008 election. At the same time, the perception of her as "unqualified" lowers the expectations bar for Palin just as it did for George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. If people think Palin doesn't know anything, all she has to do is demonstrate some knowledgeability during the initial GOP debates and she would be "exceeding expectations." It's not like Palin's negative numbers would evaporate as a result, but they might significantly weaken among the 7% she needs to win.

The other thing is that it's easy to see President Obama as being adversely affected by circumstances beyond his control. Another Katina-type disaster, a terrorist attack on American soil, and big blow ups in Iraq and Afghanistan would all have the effect of making Barack Obama less appealing. Likewise, gas is up to $3.05 in our area. If it keeps rising, one can be sure that Obama would be blamed. If Obama caught a down-cycle while Palin was in an up-cycle, it's not hard to imagine her winning a general election.

Sarah Palin is not Christine O'Donnell. Her negative numbers are fluid enough that she could benefit from a last minute surge and pull out a victory in a presidential election.

And it's not exactly like the Democrats are incapable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory either.

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