Could the Tea Party actually be Obama's salvation in 2012?

The frustration Americans have with the president has nothing on the hostility they feel toward his opponents

Published August 11, 2011 11:45AM (EDT)

Barack Obama's approval rating is holding steady below 50 percent -- sometimes well below 50 percent -- and there's reason to doubt that the country's economic conditions will improve substantially between now and November 2012.

In other words, the possibility that he'll wind up a one-term president has never seemed so real. Economic anxiety is what motivates swing voters, and the more they feel it, the more eager they are to vote out incumbents. This is the rule that explains why Jimmy Carter lost his job in 1980 and why George H.W. Bush lost his in 1992, and there's no real reason to think it won't apply next year if the economy doesn't turn around.

Unless ... well, have you seen the latest poll on the Republican Party's image?

Released on Tuesday, the CNN/Opinion Research Center survey found that just 33 percent of voters say they have a favorable opinion of the GOP, while 59 percent have an unfavorable view. It's the worse the GOP has ever fared since CNN began asking the question nearly 20 years ago. Democrats, by contrast, clocked in at 47 percent favorable and 47 percent unfavorable.

It's the congressional GOP that seems to be driving this. Early this year, when Republicans had just taken over the House, the party's favorable/unfavorable numbers were roughly even -- and on par with the Democrats. By July, though, a gap had opened up, with the GOP registering a 41/55 score and the Democrats at 45/49. And now, in the wake of the debt ceiling drama, the bottom has fallen out for Republicans.

This raises a natural question: Could the GOP as a party end up so profoundly unpopular that swing voters who would otherwise be ready to toss out Obama hold their noses and stick with him in 2012?

Mind you, this is not the same as wondering if the GOP will nominate a candidate who is so personally terrifying to swing voters (i.e., Michele Bachmann) that they stay with Obama. We've seen that phenomenon before at the statewide level (as recently as last year when Republicans Sharron Angle, Ken Buck and Christine O'Donnell all cost their party very winnable Senate seats) and it's certainly imaginable that could play out at the presidential level. The question that the CNN poll raises is that even if the GOP nominee is relatively bland and generic, the sort of person who would normally meet the "good enough" threshold of swing voters eager to throw out the incumbent, could the poisonous image of that candidate's party still be powerful enough to sink that candidate?

Before you say "of course!" it's probably worth remembering just how predictable the decision-making of most voters is -- and how few are really up for grabs in any election. The vast majority of any electorate is partisan; even those voters who call themselves "independent" tend to be de facto members of one party or the other. That leaves a much smaller chunk of authentic swing voters. But even the behavior of these voters can be easy to predict.

This is powerfully demonstrated by a simple election forecasting model that has proven uncannily accurate. Devised by political scientist Douglas Hibbs, the "Bread and Peace" model uses two basic variables: the growth of per capita real income during the president's term (weighted to emphasize data closer to Election Day); and American casualties in foreign conflicts. If that sounds too simplistic, just look at how accurate it has been:

As you can see, based on data from a few months ago, Hibbs shows the conditions of the 2012 election falling about halfway between those of 1980 and 1992 -- a very bad place for an incumbent to be. But what's also interesting about Hibbs' model -- and potentially relevant for 2012 -- is that there is a few points' worth of wiggle room.

Look at the plot points for the 1988 and 2000 elections. The basic setup for each campaign was the same: an incumbent two-term vice president running to succeed his boss after eight years of rule by the same party. For each election, the economy was in good shape and the country was at peace; the horizontal axis coordinate for each election is basically the same in the Hibbs model. And yet, each election produced a very different result. In 1988, Vice President Bush was elected in a landslide, winning 426 electoral votes and 54 percent of the two-party popular vote. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore was defeated in the Electoral College and finished with a hair more than 50 percent of the two-party popular vote.

If I haven't made it clear, I'm a political science layman, but to me this suggests that campaign events and voter attitudes that aren't shaped by structural factors can potentially result in a gain (or loss) of about 4 points from a candidate's "natural" level. Now look back at where the Hibbs model currently pegs Obama's "natural" support. He would need to overperform by several points to reach 50 percent, at least based on recent data. This, potentially, is where the GOP's rotten image could come in. If it weighs on the (very, very few) swing voters who aren't influenced by the economy, it could theoretically boost Obama's performance just enough to deliver him a victory in spite of his liabilities. 

Granted, there's really no precedent for this happening in the modern era. And it's also possible that the GOP's image will improve between now and November 2012. After all, the same CNN poll found that only 36 percent of Americans viewed the party favorably in the fall of '09, a year before Republicans scored a midterm election landslide.

But there's also no modern precedent for the out-of-power party being as widely loathed on Election Day as the GOP now is. And there will be many more opportunities in the next 15 months for congressional Republicans to inflict even more damage on the GOP brand. It's enough to raise the possibility that the very forces that set out to destroy Barack Obama's presidency from the moment it started could end up being the reason he gets a second term.

* * *

I was on "Hardball" on Wednesday night to talk about Texas Republican Rep. Michael Burgess' statement at a Tea Party event this week that the impeachment of President Obama "needs to happen," even though Burgess admitted that there are no actual grounds for impeachment. This type of rhetoric probably helps explain the GOP's current image problems. Here's the segment:

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By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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