Tipping Points in the Race for the Presidency?

A series of surveys are now showing President Obama with net negative approval scores of over ten points.  Among those with strongly held views, the net negative approval score is far higher (24% in Rasmussen).

Republican voters are more enthusiastic about and committed to voting in 2012 than Democrats.  In head-to-head matchups, the leading GOP contenders are now about even with or ahead of Obama nationally.  In yesterday's Quinnipiac polls, Romney led Obama by 4%, and Perry trailed by 1%.  Herman Cain's rise in the contest for the GOP nomination has not yet been tested in head-to-head matchups with Obama, except for one Rasmussen survey that showed Obama ahead by 5%, but with only 39% support (the lowest yet recorded in any survey in any head-to-head matchup), with a very high 27% undecided.  What does this all mean for the GOP nominating contest and the general election?

Obama moves left

The Obama White House team, now dominated by 2008 campaign strategist David Plouffe, has hardened the president's message and tone, shifting into full-throated class warfare mode.  This approach seems designed to encourage greater enthusiasm among core Democratic supporters.  The shift to the left by an incumbent president, with no primary opposition on the horizon, has had one major accomplishment -- driving independents and moderate voters away from Obama.  If the campaign's message was that Obama was the adult, and the Republicans were the extremists dominated by their Tea Party wing, that message has been negated by the new images of the angry left on display in the Occupy Wall Street movement with its cousins in other major cities.  The Keith Olbermann wing of the Democratic Party -- angry, uncompromising, and unhinged -- is now getting major media visuals.  This clarion call to destroy the corporate world by former New York Times and Harpers magazine writer Chris Hedges is my personal favorite:

The only word these corporations know is more. They are disemboweling every last social service program funded by the taxpayers, from education to Social Security, because they want that money themselves. Let the sick die. Let the poor go hungry. Let families be tossed in the street. Let the unemployed rot. Let children in the inner city or rural wastelands learn nothing and live in misery and fear. Let the students finish school with no jobs and no prospects of jobs. Let the prison system, the largest in the industrial world, expand to swallow up all potential dissenters. Let torture continue. Let teachers, police, firefighters, postal employees and social workers join the ranks of the unemployed. Let the roads, bridges, dams, levees, power grids, rail lines, subways, bus services, schools and libraries crumble or close. Let the rising temperatures of the planet, the freak weather patterns, the hurricanes, the droughts, the flooding, the tornadoes, the melting polar ice caps, the poisoned water systems, the polluted air increase until the species dies.

Barack Obama as presidential candidate, promised to stop the oceans from rising.  Chris Hedges and his minions clearly expect more from the "best among us," as he calls the demonstrators, if they can change the course of the nation.  This, of course, can be most easily done by not electing any more Republicans.

It is not hard to see that every interview with Cornel West, or Van Jones, or Hedges, or any of the union bosses now directing their workers to join the protests is destroying the chances for Barack Obama to run again on his 2008 message of rising above partisan politics to offer solutions.  When the choice is offered of us versus them, will middle America see themselves in this new movement?  I don't think so. 

If the Obama campaign continues to move left with its scapegoating and blame-shifting, and its demonization of the rich and successful, it will create more and more space in the middle among those who tend to shift allegiance from election to election.  While some analysts continue to believe that the Democrats have a built-in advantage in the Electoral College, with over 200 Electoral College votes in states the Democrats have won five straight times, it won't matter if a Republican can win the popular vote decisively.  In the five most recent presidential elections, the Democrats won the popular vote four times (narrowly in 2000, of course), and Bush won in 2004 by 2.4%.  The Republican problem has been less any built-in Electoral College advantage for the Democrats and more their inability to win a solid majority of voters.  Now we have a president with only a 42% approval rating, with that score itself held up by 85% approval among African-Americans.  The opportunity is there for not only a victory, but a solid win -- one that can carry the GOP to control of both Houses of Congress.

The GOP nomination

This has been the year where several candidates competing for the nomination got a jolt of momentum and then collapsed. Michele Bachmann had a good New Hampshire debate, won the Iowa straw poll, and vaulted into second place in the polls.  Then Rick Perry entered the race and quickly shot to the top in the polls, taking much of his support from Bachmann.  Then Perry had a series of weak debate performances, and much of his support collapsed, moving to Herman Cain and, to a lesser extent, Newt Gingrich. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has pretty much stayed in place, running first or second nationally, and for the most part directing his fire at Obama rather than at fellow competing Republicans.  Romney did go after Perry on a few issues when Perry grabbed the lead, but Perry's fall had more to do with his own weak performance than with Romney's attacks.

With Florida moving its primary up to January 31, the four states that traditionally begin the nominating cycle -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina -- are all going to move their contests up into January.  With all the candidates who have declined to run (and confirming on multiple occasion in some cases that they are not running) -- Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Mitch Daniels, John Thune, Mike Pence, Mike Huckabee, and now Sarah Palin -- the field is set.  There will be no late entries for those unhappy with the current field.

The Florida decision on January 31 helps Romney.  He has run before in all the early states and has a team on the ground in each of them.  He leads or is very close to the lead in polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Florida. He won Nevada in 2008 and was competitive in South Carolina.  If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, the race is probably over.  In Iowa, Romney is aided by the fact that the biggest threats to his winning the nomination -- Cain and Perry -- will both be held down in that state by Bachmann, who has invested heavily in the state to save her candidacy.  So too does Ron Paul have his stalwart brigade to garner 10% or more in each contest.  Even if only 20%-30% of the GOP electorate is now in Romney's corner, if eight others are splitting up the other 70%-80%, his path gets easier.

Cain is the wild card at the moment.  He has vaulted to big leads in several state polls -- Nebraska, Georgia, West Virginia, and North Carolina -- and in national polls.  But if he falters in the first set of state races, due to little money or organization, those support levels will likely drop for the later contests, unless the contest evolves into a one-on-one race between Romney and Cain and conservative support coalesces around the latter.  No one, probably including Cain himself, would have predicted Cain's rapid rise in the race, attributable I think both to his own personal attractiveness as an unorthodox candidate, projecting warmth and optimism, and to Perry's falloff.

The odds favor Romney, the slow and steady candidate this cycle, whose electability argument against Barack Obama looks very good at the moment.  Anyone who thinks he can handicap an Obama-Cain race is deluded.  If Cain were the nominee, and could actually win a third of the African-American vote as he claims he could, then he would win in a landslide, since that alone would be a 7% shift in the national popular vote (the margin Obama won by in 2008).

The field may be set, but there are likely to be a few more turns in the road before this is decided.