Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How a Tea Party President Could Happen

The conventional wisdom among political pundits seems to be that a Tea Party Candidate such as Michele Bachmann has no chance of winning a general election. Today I read a piece by Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts celebrating the fact that more than half the American electorate now holds a negative view of the tea party movement, and their approval numbers have remained relatively stable, ranging from 31 percent to 38 percent. I take less comfort from these numbers than Mr. Pitts does.

One need look only as far as the most recent Maine gubernatorial election to see the danger posed. In 2010 the incumbent Democratic governor could not run for another term so the Democrats nominated a traditional party favorite, Libby Mitchell, to succeed him. The Republicans, on the other hand, passed over all of the "middle of the road" aspirants to nominate a Tea Party favorite, Paul LePage. And then a credible Independent candidate, Eliot Cutler, entered the field and the scene was set; what transpired could, I think, be a harbinger for the upcoming presidential election.

An impressive majority of the Maine electorate, 62%, voted against Lepage - unfortunately they were divided between Eliot (36%) and Mitchell (26%), so Lepage, with only 38% of the popular vote, won the election and is now our Governor. And 62%of the electorate hates him but that doesn't change the outcome.

Now I know that there are significant differences between a gubernatorial election and a presidential election, but there are still enough similarities in the current national political situation to concern me. The Tea Party has tremendous energy and enough support to make it a factor in the Republican party - maybe the dominant factor. President Obama seems unable to inspire even his base, much less attract independent voters whose support he so desperately needs to secure his reelection. He does not face any challengers from within the traditional Democratic party but there are rumblings of a third-party challenge, maybe from someone more progressive than Obama or possibly from a candidate with more appeal to the undecided "independents" who are lukewarm at best to Obama.

So there it is - we could be facing a presidential election that pits an incumbent president with low approval ratings ("It's the economy, stupid") against a Tea Party candidate supported by 30-something percent of the electorate, and an upstart candidate from a third party who would share the "anti-tea party" vote with Obama. Do the math: if the Tea Party garners 34% of the vote in any given state with the balance of the votes split evenly between Obama and another candidate, the Tea Party candidate would win at least some, maybe all, of that state's electoral votes. And that scenario could produce a "landslide" victory to a candidate supported by about a third of the national electorate.

If that prospect doesn't scare you, nothing will. It's also the basis for my latest "conspiracy theory" but that's a subject for another post.

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