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From the Midwest to the West Wing

The formula for a winning GOP candidate.

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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From the moment the Democratic House passed Obamacare on March 21, 2010, it was clear that November 6, 2012, would be a defining moment in American history. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in many ways, that day will decide the future course of this country: Will our fellow citizens reelect President Obama and thereby ratify his signature legislative initiative, or will they reject both Obama and his namesake? Will they choose liberty and prosperity, or statism and insolvency?

From the Midwest to the West Wing

Gary Locke

Republicans will have a lot to do with providing the answers to these questions​—​especially those few who must decide whether to enter the presidential race. They should bear in mind a basic truth of American presidential politics: Presidential elections are won on personal appeal and the ability to convey and defend ideas in a compelling way. To beat President Obama, Republicans must nominate someone who can compete with him in the former category and can beat him in the latter. In other words, they need a candidate who can best him in a debate without suffering from a clear deficit in personal appeal.

President Obama can certainly be beaten. While most Americans still find him to be generally likable, they more often disagree than agree with him on the issues and don’t think he’s particularly good at his job. Polling has repeatedly shown that a majority of Americans don’t think he deserves reelection.

National exit polling during the 2010 election showed Obama suffering from an 11-point deficit in his approval rating among all voters (44 to 55 percent), and from a 19-point deficit (22 to 41 percent) among those who feel strongly (and who therefore are not as apt to change their minds). On Election Day 2010, Obama’s approval rating was 44 percent in Gallup’s polling and 48 percent in Rasmussen’s. Since then, it’s generally remained in the mid-to-high 40s in both polls. So despite the incessant efforts by Obama’s supporters to imply otherwise, there is little reason to believe that his​—​let’s be nice​—​mediocre exit polling numbers have changed substantially.

Obamacare is the one issue likely to keep his numbers from improving dramatically, as it’s the one issue from which he cannot escape. Obamacare will of course be part of a larger debate over entitlement spending​—​including the merits of the House Republicans’ proposed entitlement reforms​—​and over deficits and debt as a whole. But it will remain the clear symbol of government largess, the principal threat to liberty, and a significant impediment to prosperity. Republicans won the House largely on the basis of their unflinching advocacy of repeal, and they can similarly win the White House if their nominee will directly engage Obama on that issue.

Ours is a federalist system, however, in which candidates are rewarded for winning a sufficiently large number of (sufficiently large) states. And 17 months out, it is already clear that the 2012 election will be decided in about a quarter of the states. Looking at the 2008 (and 2004 and 2000) presidential election results by state, Obama’s approval rating in state-by-state exit polls, support for repeal in those same exit polls, and states’ 2010 House election results, it looks like 13 states will be somewhat or very competitive. Of the somewhat competitive states, three are Democratic-leaning​—​Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico​—​while the fourth leans Republican: North Carolina. Let’s assume they stay in those respective columns. When added to the 37 predictable states, the electoral tally would be Democrats 217, Republicans 206.

And the 9 very competitive states? Three of these lean Republican: Florida (29 electoral votes), Ohio (18), and Virginia (13). Three lean Democratic: Pennsylvania (20), Wisconsin (10), and Nevada (6). And three are essentially toss-ups: Colorado (9), Iowa (6), and New Hampshire (4). If each party holds all of the states that lean its way, the electoral tally will be Republicans 266, Democrats 253, with Colorado, Iowa, and New Hampshire hanging in the balance. To prevail, the Republican nominee will have to win one of these three remaining states. Obama will have to sweep them.

When thinking, therefore, about which candidates could maximize the GOP’s advantages on the electoral map​—​advantages that were accentuated through the allocation of 6 electoral votes from Democratic-leaning states to Republican-leaning states as a result of the recent census​—​one should keep in mind that the ideal state for a candidate to be from would be one that is bigger than most (a state with 8 or more electoral votes), is very competitive, and which the other party can’t really afford to lose.

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