The 2012 US election season begins on January 3 when Iowa becomes the first state to hold contests to decide who will be the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in November. While Barack Obama will be re-nominated as the Democratic contender, the Republican race’s outcome is uncertain.
Most recently, in November and early December, Newt Gingrich surged in national opinion surveys of Republican identifiers. Although his polling lead has narrowed in recent days, and indeed some surveys now show him in a statistical dead heat with Mitt Romney, Gingrich had been written off as a complete long shot candidate only a few weeks ago. But can the controversial ex-leader of the House of Representatives really become the Republican nominee, and then beat Obama in November 2012?
On the first of these questions, Gingrich does now have a plausible outside chance of becoming the Republican nominee given his strong national polling amongst party identifiers. The last few decades of US political history indicates that the victor in presidential nomination contests usually leads national polls of party identifiers on the eve of the Iowa ballot (traditionally the first nomination contest of the election season), and also raises more campaign finance than any other candidate in the 12 months prior to election year.
From 1980 to 2000, for instance, the eventual nominee in 8 of the 10 Democratic and Republican nomination races that were contested (i.e. in which there was more than one candidate), was the early front-runner by both of these two measures. This was true of George W. Bush, the Republican candidate in 2000; Al Gore, the Democratic nominee in 2000; Bob Dole, the Republican candidate in 1996; Bill Clinton, the Democratic nominee in 1992; George H.W. Bush, the Republican candidate in 1988 and 1992; Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee in 1984; and Jimmy Carter, the Democratic candidate in 1980.
Moreover, in both of the partial exceptions to this pattern, the eventual presidential nominee led the rest of the field on one of the two measures. Thus, in the race for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, Ronald Reagan (who ultimately won) led national polls of party identifiers, although John Connally was the leading fundraiser. While in the battle for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, Michael Dukakis (who eventually won) raised the most funds, but was behind in national polls on the eve of the Iowa contest to Gary Hart.
Seen through this polling and fundraising prism, the 2012 Republication race resembles the Republican 1980 and Democratic 1988 contests. This is because, as Iowa approaches, no one candidate clearly leads the field on both measures of early front runner status: Romney has raised the most money of any Republican candidate in 2011, while Gingrich leads some of the latest national polls of party identifiers (and is in a statistical dead heat with Romney in other national surveys).
So who is best placed to win between Romney and Gingrich?
Predictions are always fraught with difficultly. However, at this stage it is most likely that Romney (with his superior national campaigning organisation and financing) will prevail. However, Gingrich has a chance, especially if he wins big in Iowa and this gives him momentum in a critical mass of subsequent state nomination contests across the country.
Other candidates (especially Ron Paul -- who is currently leading the Republican field in some polls in the state of Iowa -- and Rick Perry) should also not be completely discounted. Here, it should be remembered that neither Obama (the Democratic candidate in 2008), John McCain (the Republican candidate in 2008), nor John Kerry (the Democratic candidate in 2004) were the early front runners on either the polling or fundraising measure prior to Iowa. Obama, for instance, was in Hilary Clinton’s shadow for much of the year before the 2008 election season began.
Whether Romney, Gingrich or another candidate ultimately wins the nomination, one of the key factors that will influence Republican prospects of defeating Obama will be whether, and how quickly, the party can unite around the nominee. A model here for Republicans is the 2000 cycle when Bush emerged strongly from a wide field of contenders before going on to, controversially, defeat the Democratic candidate Gore in November 2000.
However, it may be harder for Gingrich or Romney to unify the party in 2012 in such a decisive way. Romney has hit a relatively low ‘ceiling’ of support in 2011 of around 25% to 30% of party identifiers. This is largely because his generally moderate conservative views (which make him more electable than Gingrich in a national election against Obama) have alienated many right-wing Republicans, including those with Tea Party sympathies.
By contrast, Gingrich is generally perceived as a maverick by the Republican establishment which has considerable doubts about his ‘electability’ against Obama. Moreover, Gingrich’s current support from right-wing Republicans could also prove fickle inasmuch as they have concerns about his perceived ethical wrong-doing, but nonetheless appear to view him -- for now at least -- as the most credible ‘stop-Romney’ candidate.
Whoever ultimately wins the nomination, most Republican operatives are particularly keen to avoid a bruising, introspective and drawn out contest which exposes significant intra-party division to the national electorate. The last time such a scenario unfolded for Republicans, in 1992, the chief beneficiary was Democrat Bill Clinton who won a relatively comfortable victory.
While the circumstances of 2012 are different to 1992, another divisive Republican contest would almost certainly provide a much needed boost for the Obama campaign’s fortunes. With the president’s job approval ratings remaining at or below around 45%, historically low for an incumbent seeking re-election, he remains potentially highly vulnerable to defeat.
Indeed, Obama’s re-election prospects may now rest to a very significant degree on a factor that remains largely out of his hands. That is, whether the US economy can stage a much more vigorous recovery in 2012 at a time when other areas of the world, including Europe, appear to be heading back into recession.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate Partner at ReputationInc. He was formerly US editor at Oxford Analytica, and also a special adviser in the Government of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair