What will the 2012 presidential election look like? Extremely close. And extremely frustrating. Voters will be forced to choose between fear of the unknown and fear of the known. The known? President Obama's inability to turn the economy around. The unknown? The scary prospect of giving Republicans control of the White House and Congress.
Right now, the polls show President Obama leading every Republican candidate except one. The latest poll averages from Real Clear Politics have Obama leading Michele Bachmann by 14 points, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum by 11, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman by 9, Herman Cain by 8, Ron Paul by 6 and Mitt Romney by 2. The only candidate who matches Obama is the generic Republican: "Would you vote for Barack Obama or the Republican candidate for President?" Against an unnamed Republican, the race is a tie.
Which means that if the election is a referendum on President Obama, he may well lose. But it's not simply a referendum on Obama. It's a choice. As much as they are trying not to make up their minds, sooner or later Republicans will have to settle on a candidate. And that candidate is likely to be flawed.
Both Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich are burdened with nasty personal images: 53 to 29 percent negative in Gingrich's case, 46 to 32 percent negative for Cain, according to a Reuters-Ipsos online poll taken after the Cain sexual harassment controversy broke out. If Republicans nominate one of those two, they're asking for trouble.
Mitt Romney is following the strategy of the old Chinese proverb: if you sit by the river long enough, sooner or later the bodies of all your enemies will come floating by, one by one. There goes Pawlenty... Daniels... Barbour... Christie... Trump... Bachmann... and Perry. Soon to be followed by Cain and Gingrich.
Romney also has an image problem. He looks and talks like Wall Street. He's a rich guy. He has three homes -- a townhouse outside Boston, a $10 million vacation home in New Hampshire and a $12 million beachfront mansion in California that he's planning to expand to more than 11,000 square feet. (Average size of a single-family home in the U.S.? About 2,200 square feet.)
Worse, Romney was born to wealth and privilege. That's a problem for Republicans. They don't typically nominate presidential candidates who were born to wealth and privilege. It confirms the most damaging stereotype of the GOP: that it's the party of wealth and privilege. Democrats have no problem nominating well-born candidates like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. They're Democrats. And therefore traitors to their class.
Romney calls himself a turnaround artist. He turned around the 2002 Winter Olympics when they were on the verge of bankruptcy. He claims to have spent his time as a business executive turning around failing companies. But critics call him a takeover artist. His private equity firm sometimes took over small companies and squeezed them for profits by cutting costs, increasing debt and laying off workers. According to The New York Times, the company "made eye-popping sums of money in deal after deal."
Romney intends to run on the issue of Obama's failure. "I fundamentally believe that the American people are about to say that the Obama experiment has failed," Romney said on Fox News. In last weekend's foreign policy debate, Romney called Iran's nuclear program President Obama's "greatest failing."
Obama can run on fairness. That's an issue that pays off for Democrats when the economy is lousy. The Occupy Wall Street protests have hit a surprisingly responsive chord with many voters. In the CBS News-New York Times poll, 43 percent of Americans say they generally agree with the views of the Occupy Wall Street movement (27 percent disagree). Two-thirds feel that money and wealth should be more evenly distributed in this country. Two-thirds favor raising taxes on households with incomes of a million dollars or more. Two-thirds say Republican policies favor the rich (only 28 percent think the same is true for Democrats).
In the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, Obama's biggest advantage over Romney was on "being compassionate enough to understand average people" (Obama 48 percent, Romney 23 percent).
Romney is an elitist. So is Obama. But they represent different elites. Liberals aim their attacks at the rich: "country club conservatives" like Romney, who enrich themselves by gaming the system. Conservatives aim their fire at the well-educated: "limousine liberals" like Obama, who are disdainful of the values of ordinary Americans. Like in 2008, when Obama talked about economically hard-pressed voters who "get bitter" and "cling to guns or religion."
In 1988, Republicans nominated George H.W. Bush, who was born to wealth and privilege. Democrats nominated a cultural elitist, Michael Dukakis. Bush bashed Dukakis on values issues like the pledge of allegiance and the death penalty to expose his opponent as out-of-touch with ordinary Americans.
If Romney is the Republican nominee next year, the reverse is likely to happen. Romney's economic elitism will cancel out Obama's cultural elitism. In a brilliant stroke of public relations, the Occupy Wall Street movement branded themselves as "the 99%." Mitt Romney is Mr. 1%.