Here are the two basic facts about the presidential race, as of this morning: First, after last night’s debate, Mitt Romney is in command of the nomination process. And second, the new GDP numbers suggest that the economy is recovering, albeit not fast enough.
What does this mean for the fall campaign?
Romney is essentially going to be a generic, reasonably credible GOP candidate. That doesn’t mean he won’t have weaknesses — he certainly does. But he’s no Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich, and unless the out-party nominates someone unusually inept the specifics about the candidate really don’t matter all that much against an incumbent president. What will matter a lot more is whether voters believe Barack Obama is moving the economy forward at an acceptable rate.
Here are the three possible scenarios:
1. The economy thrives, and Obama is reelected easily. Call this one Reagan lite. The 1982-1983 recession was brutal, but the economy started picking up and was really booming in 1984. Reagan was also probably helped by the perception that things had been really awful when he took over, something that may help Obama a lot, too. As Greg has been reporting, economic confidence has been reviving lately, and some economists have turned optimistic; it’s certainly possible a strong recovery could be on its way. Remember, it’s the direction of economic indicators that matters, not the raw numbers; Obama could end up be ingcomfortably reelected with a historically high unemployment rate as long as it’s moving in the right direction.
2. Stagnation, and Obama is clobbered. Perhaps the closest historical parallel for that one would be Jimmy Carter. The situation was different, because Carter was struggling with inflation along with growth, but the result was a general sense that the economy was going nowhere. Note that Carter took office after a deep recession in 1974-1975 and already-high inflation, but things were bad enough in 1979 and 1980 that voters were not at all interested in blaming things on Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford. This one, too, is very possible, and becomes more likely if government austerity kicks in and Congress fails to pass the payroll tax and unemployment insurance extensions.
3. But perhaps the most likely scenario is solid, but unimpressive, recovery. This would involve there being no double-dip recession, but no 5 percent or better short-term GDP growth, either, which is what you hope for coming out of a recession. If that’s what we get, then people will have mixed views of the president, and we’re in for a close election, perhaps similar to the situation in 2004 when people had very mixed views of George W. Bush thanks to a mediocre recovery and a war in Iraq that was becoming increasingly unpopular. Then all those things that we pay attention to in campaigns — the ads, the speeches, the candidate skills and weaknesses, the debates, specific issues — really do become very important.
For now, if you want to know what’s going to happen in November, you should mostly ignore head-to-head trial test polls. For the next six months, watch the economic indicators and Barack Obama’s approval ratings. Those are going to start telling you what kind of race we’re going to have a lot sooner than the horse race numbers will.