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?
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.
For Republicans, the ideal home states would be Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—Florida, because it’s huge and very much in play; Pennsylvania and Wisconsin because they’re large, Democratic-leaning, and yet winnable for the GOP. (Ohio would also be advantageous, but it’s less than two-thirds the size of Florida and already leans Republican; it’s an ideal state for a Democrat to be from.) Among top-tier prospective Republican presidential candidates, no one is from Pennsylvania or Florida. (Rick Santorum is from Pennsylvania but would need to make a big move to get to the top tier.) Paul Ryan, however, hails from Wisconsin.
Among top-tier prospective nominees, Ryan would have the biggest geographical advantage in a race against Obama. To win the presidency, Ryan would just have to win his home state and hold GOP-leaning Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. That would be it: election over, Obama defeated, Ryan’s pen poised to sign the Obamacare-repeal legislation.
Ryan’s advantage in Wisconsin as a home-state candidate would fundamentally change the dynamic in that “must win” Democratic state. A Public Policy Polling survey in March showed Ryan having a higher net favorable rating in Wisconsin among independents, among Republicans, and among all respondents, than any other prospective GOP candidate included in the survey. Additionally, Wisconsin borders three other states in play: Michigan, Minnesota, and the important toss-up state of Iowa. The Badger State also isn’t far removed, geographically or culturally, from Ohio or western Pennsylvania.
Ryan’s competitiveness in Wisconsin would open up scenarios in which he could potentially survive even the loss of the most important state on the electoral map: Florida. Without winning Florida, a Republican who doesn’t win Wisconsin would absolutely have to win Pennsylvania. Even then, he or she would face an uphill battle, as Pennsylvania is worth 9 fewer electoral votes than the Sunshine State. Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes, however, would more than make up that difference. Moreover, Ryan could potentially survive the loss of both Florida and Pennsylvania—which no other potential GOP nominee could realistically do—by sweeping Wisconsin, Nevada, and the three toss-up states of Colorado, Iowa, and New Hampshire. This would be a tall order, but a feasible one if the youthful and engaging Ryan were to catch fire in the West.
The only other potential top-rung nominee who would enjoy similar geographical advantages would be Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty. But Minnesota would be harder for a Republican to win than Wisconsin, it doesn’t border Michigan, and it’s a little farther removed from Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The Chicago Tribune editorialized last week that Mitch Daniels’s decision not to run left “a big hole in the field . . . representing certain qualities that can be thought of as Midwestern. And it may be that the person who wins the election next year will be the candidate who displays those attributes most convincingly.”
Indeed, more than any other election in recent memory, the 2012 election clearly calls for a candidate who possesses the characteristically Midwestern virtues of prudence, integrity, humility, and—most of all—fiscal responsibility. Not so coincidentally, it also calls for a candidate who can carry the Midwest, the most crucial region on the electoral map. It almost goes without saying that the candidate who possesses the former can win the latter—and, with it, the White House.
Jeffrey H. Anderson was the senior speechwriter for Secretary Mike Leavitt at the Department of Health and Human Services.