August 12, 2011 Does it matter who the Republicans nominate?
Some pundits argue that despite his current political weakness, President Obama might be reelected because the Republican nominee will be someone offputting.
However, the evidence of history shows that elections tend to be referenda on the incumbent; a weak incumbent will lose even when the opposition field seemed weak. For example, in 1979 I think some people thought Reagan was a weak candidate, but he trounced Jimmy Carter. Ditto for Clinton and George H.W. Bush. So if Obama is in bad shape he loses to any Republican, even one who seems weak today.
Does that mean the strength of a nominee makes no difference at all? Probably not. If you look at today’s Real Clear Politics index of polls (at http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2012/president/president_obama_vs_republican_candidates.html ) Obama gets 46% on average against the strongest Republican (Romney) and 52% against the weakest (Gingrich). Assuming this is the norm, the identity of a Republican does make a difference at the margins- about 6 pts.
I tested this for some earlier polls. For 2008, I looked at a random primary date (in late January of the election year) and saw how various Republicans performed against Obama. For the date I picked (see http://web.archive.org/web/20080211164343/http://www.realclearpolitics.com/polls/) Obama’s low was 47% (against McCain) and his high was 52% (against Huckabee)- about a 5 point difference.
Having said that, these thoughts are subject to two caveats:
a) I only picked two days of polling. Somewhere out there, someone with more time on his or her hands can collect such data for hundreds of days.
b) Since partisans tend to rally around their nominee after the primaries, I have a strong suspicion that primary season poll data may overestimate the gap between strong and weak candidates. If I am right, some of the 6% who chose Romney but not Gingrich would rally around Gingrich if he was nominated.