Lots of people have come to see Obama as a weak incumbent due to a poor economy, whose best hope is to face a candidate who is too far-right for the general electorate. Yet Obama’s own weaknesses stem partly from his being too left-wing. Polls have always shown that the public still blames Bush for the state of the economy; Obama’s policies faded in popularity faster than he did; and Speaker Pelosi has always been much more unpopular than President Obama. All these are the opposite of what you would expect if Obama were truly a centrist President pursuing a popular policy agenda, and being derailed only by economic conditions.
If the Republicans nominate a right-winger (Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman, Ron Paul), we could face a match-up of a President who is too left-wing for the public versus an opponent who is too right-wing. This would be genuine, substantive polarization, unlike the version prevailing from c. 1998 through c. 2009, which consisted of policy blandness combined with intense personal hatred. I suspect that Obama would win such a matchup by appearing more steady.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is ill-equipped to exploit Obama’s left-wing excesses on health care, due to his own similar policy in Massachusetts. So far, we face the alternative of candidates who may be too far right to beat even a weak incumbent, versus one who is ill-equipped to take on the incumbent for being too far left.
Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels bowed out of the race, so that leaves Jon Huntsman. Excellent ratio of substantive conservatism to scare-the-children rhetoric; you get a lot of bang for your buck with him. The question is whether the Tea Party wants bang for its buck, or demands scare-the-children rhetoric as a signalling device. I think Huntsman may have a shot, despite his nowhere poll numbers. At this time in 2000, John McCain had nowhere poll numbers, as GWB had a huge lead over McCain and that year’s crop of right-wingers. McCain rose and rose and put up a very impressive performance. He lost because conservatives considered him too liberal and rallied around Bush. Romney is a much weaker front-runner than Bush was, and would not get anything like unanimous support from the Right in a two-man race with Huntsman.
New Hampshire loves knocking off GOP frontrunners, but probably isn’t in the mood for a Bachmann-type candidate (tho they went Buchannan ’92, and gave strong support to Ron Paul ’08.) Here’s hoping they propell Huntsman this time around.