What happens in an election when two candidates who are unelectable run against each other in the fall? We are about to test that proposition.
The Florida primary is now in the record books, and Mitt Romney walked away with a big win, money in the bank, and a good deal of momentum. He is now the true front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination, and by the sound of his speech after he won Florida (and in homage to the Facebook initial public offering), he looked like he was launching his general-election IPO. So, with the understanding that the Republican primary campaign could still take a few twists and turns, let's look forward to the general election.
After a bruising negative campaign that became considerably bitter and personal, Romney is now down to his lowest favorability rating ever among the key voting group of independents. In the latest ABC News/Washington Post polling, 51 percent of independents rate Romney unfavorably and only 23 percent view him favorably -- a whopping net-negative rating of 28 percentage points. A candidate in this territory can't win in a normal general election.
President Obama also faces bleak prospects. His approval rating (which history shows is a pretty good indicator of the vote he would draw on Election Day) is 42 percent among independent voters. That is a number that wouldn't win a president reelection in normal times. Add to that low consumer-confidence numbers, high unemployment, and the large percentage of people who say that the country is headed in the wrong direction, and you wouldn't put much money on the incumbent.
But someone has to win, and in the spring of 1992, a similar situation developed. Bill Clinton emerged battered and bruised from the Democratic primary race with a large number of voters viewing him unfavorably, and the incumbent president was unelectable when you looked at his job-approval numbers. So Ross Perot appeared and actually led some national polls until he showed he wasn't ready for prime time. Clinton unified his party at the Democratic convention in New York City, and then never trailed.
In a race between two theoretically unelectable candidates, anything is possible. Could a third-party candidate emerge? Yes. Could Romney unify the Republicans? Very possible. Could Obama get a lift from an improving economy? Sure.
We won't know any of those answers for quite a while, but it is sure going to be fun to watch this contest unfold.
Cross-posted from National Journal.