The 2012 election has crossed a barrier. In the latest CNN poll, 40 percent of Americans say things are going well in the country. Is that good? After all, 60 percent still say things are going badly.
For the Democrats, it is good.
When the number of Americans who believe things are going well is less than 40 percent, the country is in an economic bust. Like the "malaise election" of 1980 (when 32 percent said things were going well), and "the economy stupid" election of 1992 (35 percent) and the financial crisis of 2008 (16 percent -- a record low). If the incumbent president is running for re-election, he loses (Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992). If not, voters throw the president's party out of the White House (Republicans in 2008). It's all about the economy.
If more than 60 percent of Americans say things are going well, the country is in an economic boom. Like 1984 when it was "Morning in America" (74 percent said things were going well), and 1988 when voters wanted a third term for Ronald Reagan (70 percent) and 1996 when Bill Clinton got re-elected (67 percent). In boom elections, incumbents and incumbent parties do well. It's all about the economy.
What happens when the number of Americans who say things are going well is in the middle range -- between 40 and 60 percent? Then it's not all about the economy. It's about something else: Watergate in 1976 (when 56 percent said things were going well), the war on terror in 2004 (55 percent), the Iraq war in 2006 (51 percent).
For Democrats, crossing the barrier to 40 percent means the 2012 election may not be about the economic bust, as it was in the 2010 midterm when only 25 percent said things were going well. So what will 2012 be about? Republicans hope it will be about big government. But it's more likely to be about fairness. And the Republican lurch to the right.
Mitt Romney is betting everything on a bust election. He's running as a turnaround artist -- he turned the 2002 Olympics around, he turned around failing businesses and he says he can turn the U.S. economy around. But what if the economy is already turning around? What do we need Romney for? That's what Republicans are asking right now. The Republican Party is dominated by movement conservatives. Romney's not a movement conservative. He's a manager.
Of course, the economy could always get worse in the next eight months. That's what happened in 2010 -- the percentage of Americans who thought things were going well dropped from 32 percent in January to 25 percent in October. Same thing happened in 2011 -- the number dropped from 43 percent in January to 30 percent in December. There are plenty of danger signs out there: rising gas prices, a recession in Europe, a military confrontation with Iran.
But the primary campaign has not been good for Romney. His unfavorable ratings have shot up to 49 percent in the Pew poll (with only 32 percent favorable). Romney's problem is money. He has too much of it. And it shows. He's constantly making foolish remarks that expose him as out of touch with ordinary Americans ("Bet ten thousand dollars?" "Corporations are people," "I like being able to fire people," "I'm not concerned about the very poor," $374,000 -- his income from speaking -- is "not very much").
In the CNN poll, 65 percent of Americans believe Romney favors the rich rather than the middle class or the poor. Only 26 percent believe President Obama favors the rich. That invites the Democrats to run a populist campaign against Romney on the theme of economic fairness. Of course, Republicans can accuse Obama of being an elitist, too. Obama represents the liberal elite -- the elite of education, not wealth. But Mitt Romney can't lead a culturally populist campaign against President Obama. Romney is famous for flip-flopping on social issues like abortion and gay rights. That's one reason why Republicans are flirting with Rick Santorum right now. He's an authentic cultural populist.
The Republican primary race has been a demolition derby. One thing that's been demolished is the image of the Republican Party. Over the past year, negative ratings of the Republican Party have gone up ten points (from 48 to 58 percent in the Pew poll). In the CBS-Times poll, voters by better than two to one say the Republican Party is headed in the wrong direction (60 to 26 percent). Nearly a third of Republicans agree.
If Santorum beats Romney in the Michigan primary next week, all hell will break loose in the GOP. Panicky Republicans in Congress are already talking about recruiting a new candidate to come in and save the party. The name most often mentioned? Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. But there is no Republican establishment any more that can boss convention delegates around. Convention delegates are now candidate enthusiasts. They do what their candidate tells them to do. Moreover, a candidate who has to be cajoled into entering the race doesn't look very appealing. That was Rick Perry's problem. He looked like a front man for the Texas big money boys.
Moreover, Jeb Bush's name is Bush. Another Bush? Not likely.
Right now, all four Republican candidates are losing to Obama. An argument can be made that it would be better for the party to nominate Rick Santorum and lose then to nominate Mitt Romney and lose. If Romney loses, conservatives -- led by Newt Gingrich -- will claim that Romney lost because he wasn't conservative enough. And they will pull the party farther to the right. If Republicans lose with Santorum, they won't be able to make that argument. They'll have to learn the same lesson Democrats learned in the 1980s: the party is losing because it is too far out of the mainstream.