Energizing the base—and suppressing the opposition—in 2012

The state of the U.S. economy is the critical indicator for this year’s presidential election, but who better turns out their base will be as pivotal. Both President Barack Obama and probable Republican nominee Governor Mitt Romney have significant challenges in this respect.

While President Obama continues to receive high personal approval ratings, his overall job performance, most pointedly his stewardship of the economy, is viewed dimly—although perceptions have improved recently as he has become more populist in tone and aggressive in his criticism of Republicans. The classic question Americans ask in an election is whether they are better off now than they were four years previously. A majority of Americans perceive their situation as having deteriorated since Obama became president. As a result, enthusiasm and support for Obama have unquestionably waned; many are disillusioned.

The long-stated Republican goal of ensuring Obama to be a one-term president—see Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the subject—means too that the Republican presidential nominee—the “anti Obama”—needs to be someone around whom the party can really rally. The tight 8-vote victory of presumptive nominee Romney over Rick Santorum, with Ron Paul running a close third, in this week’s Iowa caucuses highlights that Republicans are not united by or enthralled with Romney’s candidacy. The Republican faithful do not support Romney with their usual commitment to their leading presidential contender. He is perceived as too moderate and inconsistent on conservative issues—he has derisively been called “John Kerry without the medals”—in a political party that has lurched rightward due to Tea Party influence, and his Mormon faith is problematic for the many evangelicals in the party.

So both the Democratic incumbent and the likely Republican contender have enthusiasm deficits. Turnout issues extend to the demography and make-up of their supporters.

President Obama has lost luster with many of his young, previously keen supporters. Youth in 2008, many voting for the first time, were greatly motivated by Obama’s campaign of change, his message of hope, and his inspiring personal story, and they canvassed, organized, and turned out for him in a big way. Now they are most disappointed. Change hasn’t come to the extent promised, and the tough jobless economic recovery and brutal political environment in Washington have crushed the hopefulness Obama represented.

The Occupy movement, which involves some former but now disillusioned Obama supporters, presents a challenge for Obama. Obama is part of the “1 percent” by dint of his financial success as the author of Dreams from My Father, his sensitive exploration of his roots, and The Audacity of Hope, his 2006 policy prescriptions for America; his life embodies the proverbial “American Dream”. Obama frequently espouses the themes the Occupy movement introduced into American political discourse, but it would be politically suicidal for him to get any closer to Occupy. Similarly, Occupiers might not feel motivated to organize or work for Obama this time, but it would be a massive blunder if they remained indifferent and didn’t turn up to vote for him on November 6. Particularly since Obama’s likely opponent is a very wealthy former CEO of Bain Capital, a private equity company, who epitomizes crony capitalism on Wall Street and the “1 percent”. Indeed, Romney was born into the “1 percent”. His father too was a CEO, of a car company.

A factor from the Iowa caucuses to watch was the strong turnout of young people for isolationist Ron Paul. Did they vote for Paul because of his obvious anger and disgust at the way things have been run? Could the main candidates re-engage these alienated youth for the general election?

Apart from youth and students, other constituencies vital to electing Obama in 2008 were women, poor people, African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities. Republican lawmakers in over a dozen states, many of them so-called “swing” or battleground states, have passed laws in recent months that aim to restrict access to the polls. These laws intentionally target Democratic-leaning sections of society by imposing strict voter-ID registration requirements, limiting registration drives, and reducing early voting. In December 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would investigate such laws, to ensure they were not discriminatory or disenfranchising. Other ways have been used to limit voter turnout. For example, an aide to former Maryland Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich was recently convicted for initiating robocalls to African American voters in the 2008 gubernatorial election, telling them erroneously late that Election Day that they didn’t need to go and vote as the result had already been established.

Resorting to these types of initiatives to restrict voter turnout highlights a perception challenge for Republicans. The Republican Party is increasingly seen as a party of white, born-again, blue collar Americans. A wry observation from National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” underscores this perception problem. Commenting on the Mayan prediction that the world will end in 2012, Alonzo Bodden noted that “Surprisingly, Herman Cain becomes the Republican nominee [he earlier suspended his campaign]. And when forced to choose between two black people, the conservatives decide to nuke the planet instead.”

The strong desire to deny Obama re-election may have Republicans flocking to the polls, even if they are lukewarm about their eventual nominee. Dismay with the gridlock and partisanship in Washington—the public has given Congress its lowest-ever job performance rating of single digits—could result in yet greater voter apathy, or could concomitantly inspire voters to emphatically kick out all incumbents.

So, folks, if you thought the tone of the 2011 local elections was combative (see the photo of a Virginia campaign placard), watch out for 2012. It’s likely to be worse.

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