Beating a sitting president is a rarity in American politics. There have been 17 one-term presidents. But four of them did not run again. Four did not get their party’s nomination, and the last one to suffer that ill fate was Andrew Johnson in 1868. Only nine sitting presidents in American political history have been defeated.
In the 20th century, four have been beaten in their re-election try. Three of the four — Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr. — were done in by a sour economy, the Depression, and in Bush’s case, an economic plunge and the third party insurgency of Ross Perot. The GOP is determined to beat the long odds and make Obama number 10. But who can they beat him with?
Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, businessman and talk show host Herman Cain and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman are either jockeying hard or have been repeatedly mentioned as GOP presidential challengers. Not one of them has a prayer.
In six major polls since January, none of them has cracked the 40 percent mark against Obama. Even worse, Palin and Gingrich have approval ratings that rank close to loathing among the majority of American voters. They are out before they even get in. The much-talked-about possibility of a GOP “dark horse” candidate slipping in and giving Obama a race is virtually non-existent.
Obama was the dark horse winner in 2008. He ran a top-flight, professional, high octane, financially well-oiled campaign, and his “Hope and Change” message struck the right chord. But his dark horse victory still might not have happened if a majority of Americans had not been fed up with the corruption, cronyism and sex scandals that wracked the GOP, and the domestic and foreign policy bungles of Bush.
The GOP doesn’t have the time or the luxury to duplicate that feat this go round. That leaves only two real possibilities to make a race against Obama competitive: Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. In the same polls that showed the other GOP hopefuls going down to a crushing defeat in a head-to-head match-up with Obama, Romney and Huckabee are the only two GOP possible candidates that consistently come within five percentage points of him.
But Obama is a cash cow and will have a king’s ransom campaign war chest. The 2012 presidential campaign will be the costliest in American history, with some estimates putting the price of winning the White House at two billion plus dollars. Romney is every bit the corporate cash cow as Obama. He pumped tens of millions into his virtually self-bankrolled, failed campaign in 2008. He can do what Obama can do — and that’s open the GOP’s corporate money spigot.
Romney has the name recognition, and he is a social and fiscal conservative. That is an absolute prerequisite for getting the imprimatur of the GOP party establishment, and the support of a large majority of Tea Party leaders and adherents. He was also a fairly successful governor. The most successful presidents have been governors (with one very recent exception). They bring the administrative and management skills crucial to the office.
Romney’s the consummate team player. When he shut down his campaign in February 2008, he immediately met with McCain and smoothed over ruffled feathers, and urged his delegates to support the senator. Romney then went to a couple of states to pitch McCain. Romney can garner a significant number of independents. This is no small matter. Independents are an absolute must-win vote in the crucial swing states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Missouri.
But that’s not enough. His shaky ties with evangelicals and his backing of the GOP-loathed health care reform plan in Massachusetts are big liabilities with the Palins, Limbaughs and Ralph Reeds, and a vast troupe of evangelical conservatives.
In 2008, legions of Christian evangelicals stayed home. They are still vocal, very big in numbers and politically dangerous to any Democrat. They provided the vote muscle for Bush in 2000 and especially 2004.
Bush was able to adroitly stoke their fury over gay marriage, abortion and their passion for family rights into an evangelical stampede to the polls in Ohio and Florida. They tipped the vote and the electoral scales to Bush in both states. They were angry, alienated and disillusioned with GOP scandals and broken promises. They were cool to McCain in 2008, and warmed up only slightly when he plopped Palin on the ticket.
Romney will need someone on the ticket to fix things with them; he can’t win without them. That’s where Huckabee comes in. A Romney-Huckabee ticket, in whichever order the nomination fight shakes out, is the only ticket that has a fighting chance to unseat a sitting president. The GOP has no other real option in 2012.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.