This week, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney responded cleverly to the characterization that he's a weak front-runner: "If I'm a weak front-runner, what does that make Newt Gingrich? Because I'm well ahead of him."
As with so many things that issue from the mouth of Mitt Romney, the retort was only half true. Even after they placed ahead of him in Tuesday's primaries, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum stand a vanishingly small chance of winning the GOP presidential nomination. Yet the fact they've threatened Romney at all—despite being vastly outspent—speaks volumes about Romney's overall weakness.
Then again, one could easily apply the Romney retort to President Obama. What does it say about him that Romney—and, indeed, Santorum!—are within striking distance of beating him?
Obama is "heading into the general election season on treacherous political ground," according to a New York Times report on the president's recent polling dip. In sum, it's fair to say the 2012 election will feature both a weak incumbent and a weak challenger. There's really no precedent for this in the modern era.
Look back at our hobbled incumbent presidents and their opponents: President George H.W. Bush was felled by a sharp, smooth-talking southern governor in the Democratic Leadership Council mold of ideological centrism. President Jimmy Carter was defeated by another governor who, though feared in some quarters to be an extremist, had a wildly appealing persona and solid executive experience—and who, four years prior, had nearly unseated the incumbent president of his own party.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was so weak, he quit before the country had the chance to boot him out of office. President Truman, in 1948, wasn't as weak as he appeared. And New York Gov. Thomas Dewey had run a respectable campaign against the popular Franklin Roosevelt in 1944.
I'd love to hear from some professional historians on this, but I think there's a case to be made that we have to go back to the pre-Civil War era to find an analogous election: to the days when the feckless James Buchanan was vying with has-beens like Millard Fillmore to replace the likes of Franklin Pierce, who had failed to win renomination by the Democratic Party. (This puts us in the stew of slavery and sectionalism, so the analogy is far from perfect.)
Alternatively, the weak-versus-weak phenomenon might have less to do with Obama (who, a short while ago, was an extraordinarily popular figure) and Romney (who, in the pre-Tea Party era, might have seemed a much stronger candidate) and more to do with other, exogenous factors: the economy, most obviously; the sharp ideological divisions of the electorate; the frenzied media culture that seems to magnify such divisions and, on a human level, create many more opportunities for embarrassing gaffes than existed just a generation ago.
To say the least, we're living in interesting and somewhat dispiriting times.