>by Richard S. Dunham |Sunday, March 11, 2012 | SFGate |
Washington — The vultures of Republican gloom and doom already are picking at the not-so-dead political carcasses of Mitt Romney and the rest of the GOP presidential field.
We’ve heard it all: The primary campaign has come to resemble a circular firing squad. The negative ratings of the contenders have gone through the roof. The candidates’ avid courtship of the party’s conservative core has alienated independent-minded swing voters. Even the venerable right-thinking columnist George Will suggested last week that Republicans give up on the White House contest and concentrate all of their energy on the battle for Congress.
“The Republican primary process has primarily served to reveal its candidates as deeply flawed individuals with very high negative ratings,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
Granted, it looks like a pretty stormy morning in America for the GOP today. But before Democrats buy their plane tickets to Barack Obama’s second inaugural celebration, consider this: Despite GOP woes, Obama is barely leading his Republican foes in general election match-ups. And most Americans still not are ready to say that the Democratic incumbent deserves a second term.
“Democrats would be unwise to grow overconfident,” Lake cautioned.
Economy an obstacle
Republicans can count on a massive bloc of voters who strongly oppose Obama’s policies, from energy to health care, and say they’ll vote for any GOP candidate on the ballot. But the biggest obstacle to Obama’s re-election, nonpartisan analysts agree, is the nation’s slow and unsteady recovery from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
“We still have unemployment over 8 percent, the economy is a mess, and gas prices are going up,” said Harry Wilson, director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. “That he’s even close to these guys suggests that he’s over-performing, not under-performing.”
History offers a sobering lesson for Obama. Only one U.S. president – Franklin Roosevelt – has won re-election when unemployment topped 8 percent. Although the jobless rate has dipped and the economy is expanding, voters are not yet optimistic about the future.
‘Not a pretty picture’
Just 34 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction, according to a RealClearPolitics.com average of recent polling, while 60 percent say it’s on the wrong track. By 49 percent to 45 percent, voters say a Republican would better handle the economy, according to the bipartisan Battleground Poll.
“If you look at the big picture, it’s not a pretty picture for the president,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “Even at Romney’s lowest point, Obama has a five (percentage) point margin. I think it’s very likely to be a very close race in the fall.”
Indeed, the public seems evenly divided on Obama. Forty-eight percent of Americans approve of his job performance, according to an average of national polls taken in the past three weeks, and 47 percent disapprove. Among recent presidents, only George W. Bush won re-election with a job approval rating below 50 percent.
“President Obama is the 2012 version of President Carter, seeking re-election in a country facing high unemployment and a lack of citizen confidence in the future of the economy or his leadership on those issues that matter most to them,” said Wayne Lesperance Jr., a political science professor at New England College in Henniker, N.H. “The difference between Presidents Obama and Carter is there is no Ronald Reagan running for president” in 2012.
Richard Dunham is the Washington bureau chief of Hearst newspapers. firstname.lastname@example.org.