3Qs: State of ’12 presidential campaigns

Mitt Romney locked up the Republican presidential nomination with a victory in last week’s Texas primary, bringing the 2012 campaign into full gear. We asked Bill Crotty, a political science professor in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, to weigh in on this year’s race to the White House.

What issues do you predict will dominate the election cycle between now and November?

More than anything else, the election is about the economy, which will determine the outcome of the race. That is the fundamental rule and it is true of most every presidential election. Key is how the candidates address economic concerns and their ability to connect with voters in terms of their sincerity and level of competence that they will bring to that problem. The economy, in the form of the Great Recession, determined the election’s outcome in 2008 and accounted for Barack Obama’s victory.

It is questionable how well he has addressed the various dimensions of the economic collapse. If the job market continues to be weak, as indicated over the past three months, the president will be in trouble. On the other hand, Mitt Romney has to show that he is sensitive to the concerns of ordinary Americans and would in all likelihood be a competent and effective economic manager. He has yet to do this — but then again Obama’s credentials in this area are in question.

Romney’s previous business experience with Bain Capital could serve to credential him, but could also serve to label him as a cold-blooded job cutter. All bets are off if there is another war or a terrorist attack of consequence within the United States. Otherwise the outlines of the campaign are clear.

How much will huge infusions of cash, especially from Super PACs and other outside forces, impact the race?

The Supreme Court’s majority decision in the Citizens United case has completely reframed elections in this country. It was an extraordinary decision for a democratic nation. Essentially it allows anybody with a personal fortune to fund a candidate without identification — and therefore with no transparency.

The Supreme Court has a history of voiding campaign regulations meant to equalize the role of money in campaigns, but this decision has taken it to the extreme. An individual’s money is the major factor in elections. It basically replaces the role of political parties and minimizes the role of the individual voter. This in turn can serve to depress voter turnout and unquestionably influences, and more often determines, the outcome of the policy-making process.

In the presidential race there are projections of $1 billion campaigns, leaving both candidates severely indebted to the sources of wealth dominant in the country. It is not encouraging what this says about what’s in store for the rest of us.

President Obama’s popularity has continued to slip. Are there any circumstances under which an unpopular president could still be elected?

Yes, an unpopular president could be reelected. There is no need to go any further back than George W. Bush in 2004. It is the circumstances of the campaign and the effectiveness with which the candidates address the dominant economic issues that will be decisive. Neither candidate, for good reason, is particularly popular. Obama’s approval rating can increase overnight if there is a strong job-market rebound and economic revival. It is how each candidate approaches the job and what ails the country that will assume far greater importance in contrast to what people might think of candidates of whom they know little and basically have little reason to be enthusiastic about.