The GOP’s primary electorate has developed a tendency to nominate non-mainstream candidates, caring more about ideological purity than winning general elections. Granted, this is usually because primaries are low-turnout affairs, meaning that just the firmest activists show up.
The GOP nominated fringe candidates in Nevada (Sharron Angle), Colorado (Ken Buck) and Delaware (Christine O’Donnell). Despite the dismal political climate for Democrats, the Democrats in those races won. However, polls showed that other GOP candidates that lost in the primary would have easily won. The GOP electorate in Delaware rejected Mike Castle, a long-time popular congressman who would have skated into the Senate, and went for Christine O’Donnell, an unpopular perennial candidate, just to prove that moderates aren’t welcome. So I could easily see the national GOP electorate nominating Sarah Palin over someone more mainstream like Mitt Romney.
Now, you cannot consider Palin a frontrunner, as some pundits do. Palin is behind in the primary polls. But so were Angle, Buck and O’Donnell at the beginning, and polls can often change over time, especially those in the primaries. In fact, sometimes they are just plain wrong. In 2007, everybody thought that the 2008 presidential election would be between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. But it didn’t happen. This is obviously not proof that Palin will get the nomination, but it does show that you cannot say anything about Palin’s viability based on the polls right now.
As for the general election, that’s a different story. The largest presidential landslide for Democrats in the last 50 years was in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater by a 23-point margin, winning 44 states and 61.1% of the popular vote. According to polls right now, if Palin gets the nomination, Obama could be in a position to match, if not top, that result.
It has been said that the economy is all that matters in an election. Political scientists also say that the favorability ratings of the President and his challenger matter as well. Usually, the President’s approval rating is driven by the economy, but sometimes personal appeal and other policy decisions can affect it, although not very often. And sometimes, the challenger’s beliefs, antics and ideology can affect elections.
Polls have recently come out showing Palin down by as far as 25 points behind Obama. She would lose several states by the largest margins since Goldwater. LBJ won Florida by 2%, but Obama would win Florida by over 10%. She would also be the first Republican to lose Virginia by over 10% since FDR’s victory in 1944. She would even do horribly in some red states, narrowly holding onto them or even losing them.
Here’s how monumental her loss would be: after 1964, Democratic presidential candidates have never won the white vote nationally. Even in 2008, Obama got 43% of whites to McCain’s 55%. But if Palin gets nominated, Obama would likely win a plurality, if not a majority, of white voters.
This would have drastic consequences in other areas besides the presidential race. Back in the 1970s, ‘80s, and even ‘90s, the presidential results of a district or state did not always tell you much about the party of their Representatives and Senators. Now, congressional results are tightly coordinated with presidential results. If Palin is the nominee, she could drag down the entire GOP ticket. The Democrats would almost certainly gain back the House of Representatives, win more Senate seats and win back many of the state legislatures they lost, even winning more. Many of these Democratic victories would not last very long, as they would be part of a “wave” election, but it would severely set back the GOP.
If you are a Republican, you should pray that Romney or Huckabee are nominated, because they have a chance of beating Obama in the right circumstances. If you are a Democrat, you should pray that you hear the words, “I accept your nomination, you betcha,” in late Aug of 2012 at the RNC in Tampa, Florida.