Unemployment Key to the 2012 Presidential Race

Obama's job depends largely on the jobs number.

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National Journal's Charlie Cook has a typically insightful analysis of last week's unemployment numbers and the great spinfest they set off (unemployment rate down, but actual net number of new jobs created weak). Noting that Ronald Reagan faced a tough economy in his first term before riding a 7.2 percent unemployment rate to victory in 1984, Cook sums up Obama's re-election landscape in 2012:

It is highly unlikely that unemployment will drop to 7.2 percent by November 2012. A decline to around 8 percent would likely bode well for Obama’s reelection chances. If it remains around 9 percent, one can argue that most any major Republican nominee has a good chance of winning. Under this argument, the tipping point is between 8 and 9 percent.

it's still the economy, stupid. If it's strong--or at least if voters think it's strong--next year, Obama becomes hard to beat. As Cook puts it:

...a strong economy and improving jobs picture does tend to validate a president’s economic stewardship, while a weak economy and poor job growth tends to repudiate it, fairly or not.  

Differences voters have with Obama over priorities and policies during his first two years in office would likely be exacerbated or perpetuated by weak GDP numbers and high unemployment rates, while strong growth and meaningful job creation would at least help overcome disagreements that they might have had with him.

We'll spend whole heaping amounts of time and energy analyzing the GOP field and primary contests over the coming months but the biggest factors affecting the identity of the next president are beyond Republican control (more or less--obviously legislation passed or not passed by Congress will have some effect). The 2012 race will be a referendum on Obama and that will be all about the economy. [ See editorial cartoons about the economy.]

As important a question regarding the GOP primaries as whether their nominee can actively topple Obama is whether he or she can stay out of their own way. As Cook points out, leading economists predict unemployment will be somewhere in the 8 percent range, which makes Obama vulnerable but not a lame duck. The Tea Party-driven GOP nominations for Senate races in swing states like Colorado and Nevada, and a blue state that was prepared to swing red (Delaware) show the danger of an agitated party base. [ See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]

Would the GOP nominate someone who could be Sharron Angle'd--in other words someone who can be portrayed (correctly in the case of last year's Nevada senate nominee) as so far out of the main stream that voters will hold their nose and vote for a disliked incumbent? A new CNN poll suggests not--68 percent say they value electability over ideological purity while 29 percent say they will ignore electability and vote on the issues. But there is some contradictory evidence in the poll, of which more later. [ See editorial cartoons about the GOP.]