A Tale of Two Unelectable Candidates

What happens when neither candidate is the right option.

August 8, 2012 -- Six months ago, at the beginning of February, I wrote a column about President Obama and Mitt Romney's being two unelectable candidates about to face off in the general election.

There were many unanswered questions at the time, and much has transpired since, but let's take a look again at the equation.

Well, different day, same story. After all these many months, we still have two unelectable candidates running against each other. If you look at historical precedents, Gov. Romney and President Obama wouldn't be able to win this presidential election. But because they face each other, someone has to win this very tight election.

Let's take a look at President Obama. According to the latest Gallup poll ratings, his approval has been stuck at roughly 47 percent for months. No incumbent president has won re-election with an approval rating consistently in the 40s. Further, Gallup rates the direction of the country, and today it has 28 percent of Americans satisfied with how things are going, and 69 percent dissatisfied. In 2004, in that close election for President Bush, the numbers were 44 percent satisfied and 54 percent dissatisfied, a whopping net difference for President Obama of minus 31 points.

Further, the Consumer Confidence numbers that Bloomberg News tracks on consumer attitudes toward the economy and spending show the latest levels at minus 39.7. A number much more akin to President George H. W. Bush. who lost re-election (minus 42), than President George W. Bush, who won re-election (minus 5).

Now, Gov. Romney's turn. His personal ratings in the latest ABC News poll show him with a net negative of minus 9 points (40 percent view him favorably, 49 percent view him unfavorably). He finished the primary season with the lowest favorability of any nominee since ABC News-Washington Post has been doing polling the past 28 years. No nominee of a major party has won the presidency with that high a negative favorability going into Election Day.

So, where does this leave us?

First, this is some explanation for why the campaigns have conducted themselves the way they have. Neither one, it seems, can run and win on its own record or its own approval. This is why for the past few weeks, 90 percent of the television ads run by both campaigns have been negative. And this doesn't seem likely to change. It seems the message from Romney is "Fire Obama,' and from President Obama it is, "Don't Hire Romney."

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Second, the electorate is almost totally polarized at this point, with Republicans solidly backing Romney and Democrats solidly behind the president. And each side is unified in its dislike for the opposing party candidate, so there doesn't look like much room to gather votes across the aisle. And so the battleground for this election will be a tiny percentage of swing voters (roughly 5 or 6 percent) who are either undecided or soft in their support; meaning this seems to be an election that is likely to stay within the margin of error all the way until November, absent a major surprise or mistake.

In February, I speculated that this might leave room for a third party. That is no longer possible because the major-party supporters are solidly behind their candidates. And I also thought that Romney might be able to adjust the equation by unifying the Republicans. He has done so, but so has the president with Democrats. So it's a wash.

Two unelectable candidates running overwhelming negative campaigns against each other will result in one's winning and one's losing in November, but with the winner unlike to have a mandate for governing or a vision that the public was behind. And with the results in congressional races likely to produce a Congress even more split, it certainly doesn't bode well for functional governing next year.

I hold out hope that in the next three months something will break this dynamic, and give us an opportunity to deal with the major issues in a positive way. But I am realistic that whoever wins the election as president might be akin to the No. 2 finisher at the Tour de France who won because the winner was disqualified.

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