In a general election contest against an unpopular incumbent (one with an approval level significantly below 50 percent), the main hurdle that the opposition candidate needs to clear is that of competence. In 1980, for example, voters made their decision in two distinct stages. Between late January and mid-April, Jimmy Carter’s approval rating sank from 58 to 39 percent and never exceeded 43 percent for the remainder of the campaign. This represented stage one, in which the voters concluded that they didn’t want to return Jimmy Carter to the Oval Office for a second term—if they had a reasonable and non-threatening alternative. In the second stage, which occurred immediately after the sole presidential debate, they decided that despite their earlier doubts, Ronald Reagan represented such an alternative. Reagan’s humorous and avuncular affect in the debate dispelled fears that he might be the second coming of Barry Goldwater. To filch a phrase from Mike Huckabee, Reagan was clearly a conservative, but he wasn’t angry about it.
That’s why the Republican contest matters. A bad candidate could still lose in November.
Granted, Mitt Romney is a flawed candidate whose vulnerabilities can be exploited, especially in intra-party combat. But in a general election, he has a better chance than any other Republican of reassuring persuadable voters that he represents a safe and competent alternative to the incumbent. Unless the economic environment changes a lot during the next twelve months, skepticism about Obama’s performance as president should be enough to propel Romney to victory, if not one of landslide proportions.
Republican primary voters, of course, are free to choose whomever they want to serve as their nominee. Early in 1980, let us recall, many Democrats believed that Reagan would be easier to beat than his principal rival—George H. W. Bush—because his brand of conservatism would alienate swing voters. One might argue that history is repeating itself, with Romney filling the role of Bush 41 and Rick Perry starring as Reagan.
Maybe. But having spent more than two years as Walter Mondale’s issues director during his presidential campaign, I got to size up Reagan’s record and political skills. Rick Perry isn’t his equal as governor, and he certainly isn’t his equal as a candidate. If circumstances are dire enough next November, he might win anyway. But I very much doubt it.