National media already are actively speculating about President Barack Obama's chances for 2012 reelection and his possible Republican opponent.
Three early points need to be made.
First, any national election with an incumbent president on the ballot is a referendum on the incumbency. Voters in 2012 will mainly be voting "yes" or "no" on Obama's four years in office.
Second, a Republican challenger most likely to be successful would be a moderate candidate, without damaging policy or political baggage, who would not distract voters from their yes-no vote on Obama.
Third, early polling data can be meaningles. Early frontrunners usually are well known, established names familiar to voters. On the Republican side, these have included Michigan Gov. George Romney and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and, on the Democratic, Sens. Ed Muskie, Gary Hart, and Hillary Clinton and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. Eventual nominees who began as long shots have included Sen. George McGovern, Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, and Obama himself in 2008. McGovern declared his candidacy early in 1971 but, entering 1972, commanded only 2 to 4 percent in polls as the favorite of Democratic voters. Carter was almost wholely unknown entering 1976.
The referendum on the incumbency always focuses on three things: the economy, national security, and the presence or absence of major scandal.
Those are the factors on which voters will give Obama a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The first two factors, at least, are chancy. The economy gradually is improving. But unemployment is expected to still be at 8 percent during the campaign period of 2012.
It could be worse, depending in the depth and length of the oil shock flowing from Middle East instability. The overall burden of public debt will be larger, not smaller, a year from now.
Not only are there national-security uncertainties in the Middle East but continuing ones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. It will be difficult for Obama to run next year on a peace-and-prosperity platform. He is far more likely to be running on an it-could-be-worse platform, arguing that he has done well in difficult circumstances.
Which prospective Republican candidates have the best credentials for general-election success?
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, runnerup to Sen. John McCain for the 2008 GOP nomination, would appear to be No. 1. He has campaign money and name identification, ran well and honorably in 2008, and is especially strong on the financial-economic issues that will be paramount in 2012. He has an added advantage. He governed successfully in a heavily Democratic state and, thus, has a better feel for the overall electorate than a candidate coming from a bright-red Republican constituency.
Less well known than Romney, but with similar credentials, is former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Mitch Daniels of Indiana are experienced, savvy, and strong on substance. But Barbour is too identified as a Deep South regional candidate and Daniels as an able but uninspiring operator.
The other GOP hopefuls all have their followings but heavy baggage to carry. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin — both paid on-air personalities for Fox News — have name recogition and their own populist constituencies. But neither appeals to moderates and independents; both have experienced bouts of foot-in-mouth disease. To put it bluntly, neither passes a seriousness test. Reps. Ron Paul and Michelle Bachmann fall into the same category.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich already has joined the battle. He is bright and experienced and well known for his 1994 Contract With America, which helped Repubicans regain a House majority that year. But his personal life has been a mess, with well-publicized affairs, multiple marriages, and even a change of religion. He also is prone to foot-in-mouth episodes.
One possible late entrant in the race could be New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a straight-talking, articulate tough guy with appeal to Republicans, independents, and Democrats. I would rate him with Romney as the candidate with the greatest general-election potential.
One thing should be pointed out about the two parties' nominating processes.
Democrats operate mainly by a proportional representation system. To oversimplify, that means that candidates in Democratic presidential primaries are awarded delegates in the same proportion as the votes they receive — 51 percent, 20 percent, 15 percent, and so on. Republicans operate mainly by a winner-take-all system in which the candidate who carries a primary (even by a half-point margin) is awarded all that state's delegates.
Had the processes been reversed in 2008, Hillary Clinton, who carried the big Democratic primary states, would have been the Democratic nominee. Romney, who ran a strong second to McCain in several big-state primaries (but got no delegates there) and then carried Western primaries and caucuses, could have been nominated in a proportional-representation system. The two parties' systems will largely remain the same in 2012.
One other factor should be mentioned. Democratic presidential-nominating contests have traditionally been wide open, multi-candidate battles. A losing candidate in one cycle seldom gets a chance four years hence. Republicans, on the other hand, are far more respectful of hierarchy and tend to reward runners-up in one cycle with the nomination four years later. This would argue further for Romney's nomination in 2012.
What about a challenge to Obama within the Democratic Party? That would be unlikely — unless things turn sharply worse in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere where U.S. troops may be engaged. Obama has gotten default backing on those commitments because Republicans, by and large, have also supported them. Democrats, in general, are less committed to these interventions than their president but a peace candidate would emerge only if American casualties were mounting and the situations on the ground were seen to be deteriorating.