A Strong Candidate Isn’t Needed to Beat a Weak Incumbent

The conventional wisdom persists that President Obama remains a strong contender for re-election in 2012, in large part because the Republican field is so weak. If the Republicans don’t nominate a moderate conservative like Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman, the CW goes, they’ll find themselves shut out of the Oval Office for another four years.

There are two problems with this. The first is the sense that Mitt Romney is a particularly strong candidate (the same certainly goes for Huntsman). In fact, Romney’s flip-flops, slickness, wooden personality (witness how flat his joke fell when he claimed his first name really is Mitt — when it is in fact Willard) and Wall Street ties present real obstacles for a general election bid.

More importantly, the conventional wisdom overstates the importance of challenger quality in these races. David Axelrod insists that this election offers a choice, rather than a referendum, but all experience points to the contrary. This election will largely turn on how the electorate views Barack Obama’s term in office. If voters don’t think Obama is doing a good job, they will probably vote for someone else. Incidentally, Axelrod made similar comments about the 2010 elections; we all know how that turned out.

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