President Barack Obama announced the start of his re-election campaign Monday morning, asking supporters — by text message and email and through his newest campaign video — “Are you in?”
This announcement officially kicks off the 2012 Presidential Election Season and, with it, speculation about who will run against him, what kind of Republican he will face and what the electorate will look like come November 2012. Economic trouble and Obama’s initiatives during his first 2 1/2 years in office have had a great effect on our political climate and conversation since 2008, but so has the Republican Party. The rise of the Tea Party and its rallying of the American conservative base will likely have an effect on the names that will appear on next year’s ballots.
Still, none of the prospective Republican candidates have officially announced their bids.
“My guess is that May and June are going to be big months in showing up the field,” Matt Bai (A ’90), chief political correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, told the Daily. “The next eight weeks or so are going to tell us a lot, and it’s not worth getting too wrought up about before that.”
Bai said that the best strategy for Obama at this point is to start raising money, but that he does not have to go into full-fledged campaign mode for quite some time.
“He’s in pretty good shape, which is one of the reasons incumbent presidents often win,” Bai said. “He’s got a relatively unified party, no obvious candidate to oppose, so he can sit back and let the Republicans tear themselves apart, which is comparable to what happened in 2004. Bush was arguably weaker than Kerry and should not have been able to win, given economic conditions and Iraq, but was greatly helped by divisions in the Democratic Party.”
According to senior Michael Hawley, former president of Tufts Republicans, the divisions within the Republican Party have greatly widened since the Tea Party became a powerful movement, as more traditional Republicans find themselves facing an energized and critical base.
“I think the Tea Party has pulled the Republican Party back towards its roots and foundational principles and has allowed them to reclaim their role as the fiscally disciplined party, not the party of profligate spending,” he said. “I would be extremely surprised if the  candidate is opposed by the Tea Party.”
According to a March 2010 Gallup poll, 49 percent of Tea Party supporters identify as Republicans and 43 percent identify as independents, all of whom could have a significant influence on what kind of Republican candidate will go up against Obama. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) is the strongest potential candidate, according to Gallup, but other popular names include Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R). Whether the candidate will be a Tea Party supporter like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) or someone strict on the Republican Party line like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), the influence of the Tea Party cannot be discounted in the upcoming weeks, according to commentators.
Hawley said that the Tea Party’s sway on the GOP has generally been a positive one, but he is concerned that whichever candidate the Tea Party officially backs may not be able to make it in the general election.
“Especially in states with more moderate electorates, the Tea Party may have a tendency to push candidates too far to the right to win a general election,” Hawley said. “I hope that isn’t the case on the presidential level, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), have both said that there is a 50 percent chance that they will run in 2012. While the elder Paul was thought by many of as a quirky fringe candidate in the 2008 election who often noted his experience as an obstetrician and opposition to the war in Iraq, he is now popularly hailed as the “godfather” of the Tea Party movement. Both he and his son currently hold considerable sway over its followers.
“You can’t ignore him,” Bai said. “What used to be the fringe candidate is now the kind of person who can start a national movement and raise a lot of money based on passion.”
Hawley said that the values emphasized by the Tea Party line up with those of many Americans, just not necessarily those of the Obama administration, the Democratic majority ruling the Senate and, until recently, the House of Representatives.
“People tend to perceive the Tea Party as an organization of extremists, but for the most part, they seem to be advocating values that, not too long ago in our nation’s history, were widely popular,” he said. “Low taxes, low government regulation, low tolerance for a welfare state, opposition to rampant illegal immigration and deliberate self-humiliation of this country on the world stage.”
The recent pro-union activism that began in Wisconsin in reaction to Gov. Scott Walker’s (R-Wis.) attempt to do away with union rights for state workers, for one, spread an investment in workers’ rights — antithetical to the Tea Party’s stance — across the nation.
“A generation of attacks by employers and judges and right-wing lawmakers [has] whittled away at the right of association and collective bargaining so that now union protection is available to only eight percent of private sector workers compared to thrity-five percent a generation ago,” Robert Ross, professor of sociology at Clark University, said at a labor teach-in at Boston University on Monday. “You have a right to join together to worship, to associate, to pressure your school superintendent, to vote for wacky parties and candidates. But if you are an activist for a union campaign at work, you have a twenty-five percent chance of getting fired.”
According to Bai, the heated discussion about unions and union rights has been a challenge for Republican politicians.
“I think Wisconsin in particular has been a real problem for the Republican cause in this regard,” Bai said. “Walker gave the high ground to Democrats on an issue where it wasn’t clear and that’s sort of a gift. The challenge for Republican candidates is, ‘How can I turn that conversation away from Wisconsin’ to talk about places where they have a moral high ground.”
While it is still unclear who will be running against Obama in 2012, Bai said, it is useful to look at Obama’s current ratings when gauging what is to unravel in the upcoming election. Currently, he has a 46 percent job-approval rating and, as of January, a 53 percent favorability rating.
“That’s not a guarantee of anything, because Jimmy Carter had a wonderful favorability rating and that didn’t translate to anything people thought was leadership,” Bai said. “But that many people see him as a force for good and an honorable person is a real foundation for him going into re-election.”
This article has been updated from its original version. The article incorrectly stated that Matt Bai’s quotes were obtained from a Tufts event last month. In fact, he was interviewed by the Daily.
The article also incorrectly stated that pro-union activism is central to the Tea Party’s stance. It should have read that pro-union activism is antithetical to the Tea Party’s stance.