12.13.11

Michael Tomasky: Could Obama Be Headed for a Landslide?

Obama’s approval rating is soft, but new polls of South Carolina and Florida show him ahead of Gingrich and Romney. Michael Tomasky asks: could the GOP be headed for disaster?

How can Barack Obama, as this new NBC/Marist poll has it, be beating Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in South Carolina, of all places? The leads are narrow—it’s just 45-42 over Romney and 46-42 over Gingrich. But still, this is South Carolina, the home state of a senator (Lindsey Graham) who, just this past Sunday on Meet the Press, was talking nullification of federal laws in the shameful style that is his state’s benighted tradition. Is it conceivable that 10 months and three weeks from now, Obama could actually win the state? If it happens, we will know that the Republicans are headed off the cliff. And that is precisely where we should all hope they go.

Everyone wants sanity and civility restored to our politics. Some moderate Democrats and a smattering of Republicans have this fantasy that a centrist third party will do it. Nonsense. As I’ve written before, all a centrist third party will accomplish is ensure the election of the right-wing candidate. The only thing that might bring back sanity and civility is the destruction of the current GOP. If Republicans wake up next Nov. 7 to see that their extremist-obstructionist posture of the last four years has only reelected a president who started the year below 50 percent (as he will) and whom they should have been able to beat, then they might finally return to earth.

Nothing would say that the American people thought Republicans had vacated our planet like losing South Carolina. Everything was going gangbusters for the GOP there recently, even more than usual. The last remaining Democratic federal-level officials were all wiped out, except for James Clyburn, the congressman who represents the one majority-black district. The Democrats’ last Senate candidate was a laughingstock. And the Palmetto State had this hot new governor, Nikki Haley: right wing; a Sikh, of all improbable things (by birth—she's a fervent Christian now); a heavyweight endorsee of Sarah Palin; and a rising star.

Now? Well, the Democrats aren’t going to take over state politics anytime soon. But Haley’s star is very much on the wane. Her approval rating in the state, 36 percent, is 8 points lower than Obama’s. A state agency of her administration—get this—voted to grant Savannah, Ga., the right to deepen its port channels, thereby potentially putting the port of Savannah in a position to take business away in the future from the port of Charleston. Haley’s appointees to the board voted with Georgia.

There are various allegations flying about. But on the central question of why the appointees of a governor of South Carolina would side with Georgia’s interests and against their own state’s, one South Carolina politics website, linked to above, has this to say: “According to our sources, moneyed Georgia interests with connections to the Port of Savannah threw a big fundraiser for Haley in Atlanta last month. Also, our sources say that the chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority—a major GOP donor who will select speakers for next year’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida—has been negotiating with Haley and her political consultant to land the governor a coveted prime time speaking gig at the event.”

Ten months and three weeks is a long, long time. But today’s poll suggests that a wipeout is not unimaginable—by a president whose anemic approval rating is just 44 percent!

Haley is sinking like a stone. Meanwhile, South Carolina Republicans surely know deep down that Gingrich is unelectable, and they find Romney unpalatable. The state’s black voters, about 30 percent of the total, have no such reservations about the Democratic candidate. And his 45 or 46 percent in the new poll suggests he’s getting some white support, too—more than he got in 2008, arguably, when he won just under 45 percent of the vote against John McCain.

OK. Realistically, South Carolina is a reach. But nobody cares about South Carolina, really—it is assumed to be in the red column just as Massachusetts is assumed to be in the blue. But now let’s look at the Florida numbers from the NBC/Marist poll. There Obama is beating both Romney and Gingrich by outside the margin of error. He leads Romney 48-41 and Gingrich 51-39.

Again, all politics is local. Republican Rick Scott is the least popular governor in the United States—right now at 26 percent and still sinking. Scott and Haley are prime examples of governors who were supposed to show a new and better way, with politics forged in the cauldron of Tea Party fervor about an absence of accountability, and so on. But these politicians have turned out to be just like all the old ones, except less competent. And if Obama holds Florida, he can afford to lose—take note of this list—Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Nevada, New Mexico, and either Michigan or Pennsylvania, and still rack up a winning 270 electoral votes. (Here, go click the states yourself.) But of course, if he’s winning Florida, he’s likely not losing any of those other states, with the exception of Indiana. Indeed, if he’s winning Florida by around double digits, he’s winning Missouri, Arizona, and maybe Georgia (yes, even—I’d say especially—against Gingrich).

Ten months and three weeks is a long, long time. But today’s poll suggests that a wipeout of such proportions is not unimaginable. By a president whose anemic approval rating is just 44 percent! But I am not here to say the GOP had better grow up fast. Quite the contrary. If this tantrum lasts through the election, and if 2012 is for the Republicans what 1984 was for the Democrats, then finally our polity stands a chance of functioning again. The Tea Party will be dead and buried. Grover Norquist’s vise lock on the GOP will loosen. Someone will start a centrist Republican Leadership Council, just as people started the centrist DLC back in 1985. A certain number of elected Republicans will understand that being the Party of No didn’t get them much of anywhere. So this poll should not be a wake-up call for Republican voters. Hit the snooze button, folks, and keep fuming away.