Yesterday, I noted that Ron Paul could conceivably cobble together a win against Obama, and I've thought a little more about the situation. Perhaps it would be constructive to look at how each of the candidates could win this November:
First, let's look at Barack Obama, since by necessity he is the defender--it's his election to lose. He has the advantage of the incumbency and an improving economy, as well as a reasonably strong and well-run campaign organization. His drawbacks, however, are many, and a lot of the attack commercials write themselves--for example, whatever you think of the merits of the health care plan, the way it was done was not only sloppy and heavy-handed but actively destructive to the political process.
So what does Obama have to do to win? A look at the electoral map will give us some ideas. We can use the 2004 map as the "standard," as it seems to most accurately reflect the current Red State/Blue State divide. Obama can't count on a lot of the "cushion" states he bagged in 2008: he's not going to win Indiana or North Carolina, for example, and states like Virginia, Nevada, and New Mexico are probably going to bounce back to Red regardless of what Obama does. My hunch is that Ohio and Florida are also going to be tough wins for the President; both states have been hit the hardest during this economic downturn, and even if the economy as a whole improves they are in pretty bad shape. Unless he can convert nearly all of these states, he'll have to fight for small states like Colorado, New Hampshire and Iowa, none of which are sure things (all were won with less than 10% last time).
On the plus side, there are very few Blue states that look likely to flip over to Red. If Romney is the candidate, Massachusetts and Michigan are possibly shakier than usual (Romney's father was once governor of Michigan), but if Obama is losing Massachusetts the election is already over. There are always some perennial "maybe they'll switch this time" states, like New Jersey or Pennsylvania, but they never do. A strategic VP selection might make this more viable (cough, Chris Christie, cough), but at most one or two of these could flip.
In reality, it's going to come down to the economy. If signs of life even trend to the positive, Obama can simply stay the course, lay low, and eke out a victory. He'll have to make a tough sell in Ohio and Florida, but if he can keep those under his column he's probably going to win the election.
So, what about the other GOP candidates?
Mitt Romney: If he can deflect accusations about his time at Bain and fend off stories like the time he strapped his dog to the roof of his car, he is a very credible candidate to win. Besides being painted as an ultra-rich robot more concerned with maintaining the integrity of the free market than poor people, he has few negatives that weren't already burned off during his run in 2008. (Being Mormon won't hurt. Evangelicals too narrow minded to vote for a Mormon are even more incensed about Obama. They won't be staying home.) As mentioned above, a strategic VP selection can help immensely. Christie could help push New Jersey and (possibly) Pennsylvania closer to his column. Marco Rubio could shore up Florida--already shaky for Obama--and probably help keep Southwestern and Western states (such as Colorado and New Mexico) on the Red side. Bobby Jindal could also be a solid pick, but the people who like him are either already voting for the GOP, or are in deep Blue areas. Chances are he will pick someone safe but conservative, since many Republicans were burned by the stunt pick of Sarah Palin last time. Both Rubio and Christie fit this description.
Newt Gingrich: I can't envisioning a scenario where Gingrich wins the general election. His personality is just too abrasive to appeal to the masses, so he would have to cherry-pick his interest groups and organizations and hope that this awkward and evil combination grabs enough swing states. He is a pretty solid policy wonk, so if he survives the nomination battle and starts churning out fire-proof policy proposals, he could convince enough people that even though he likes poking his pecker in anything that moves, he has a better grasp of policy than our current president. But I doubt it. (Also, he would make a lousy president.) He would easily steal all the Southern states Obama won last election, and possibly some of the disgruntled Midwestern and Western states, but New England, the Pacific, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Great Lakes would avoid him like the plague. His only true hope in winning is that people dislike Obama enough not to stay home in disgust.
Rick Santorum: Has even less of a chance of winning. If he gets the nomination, he'll only win the Southern states, if that. As I mentioned yesterday, he has come out against birth control, which as far as I know hasn't been a political issue for about a century and a score.
Ron Paul: Paul is the most interesting candidate. While he is a Republican, he's run on the Libertarian slate in the past, and still holds plenty of libertarian views. The good news is that some of these are outside of the GOP norm, such as his pro-privacy and anti-war stances, and thus has a pretty good shot at appealing to more moderate voters; he could truly be seen as "not just another Bible-thumping kneejerk Republican." Even so, many of his positions (on, say, abortion) fit the conservative mold quite nicely, and if Paul can emphasize these positions to the right audiences he can maximize this message effectively. Unfortunately, his views can also be easily mocked and set up for destruction; his unrealistic hatred for dismantling the Federal Reserve will never happen, for example, and his dismantling of cabinet positions could be an easy target.
How would he win electorally? He could rather easily snag all the sympathetic Western states and probably the South--they may hate Paul, but they hate Obama more--plus, he has a shot at the more libertarian New England states (notably New Hampshire) and even the Pacific Northwest. Paul represents the sort of Republican that voters in Pennsylvania, Seattle, Michigan, or Wisconsin suburbs could vote for and still feel good about it; the question is whether these voters legitimately don't want Obama back in office. If Paul wins, it would be less about Paul and more about the voters not liking Obama and not being forced to vote for a Neanderthalic candidate on the Republican side. One other drawback is that he would never select a conservative vice president and would only pick someone very close to himself ideologically, so his VP pick would be effectively wasted. Also, he has some racist issues from his past and his age to deal with, but these are things other candidates have successfully deflected. It's unlikely Paul will win the nomination, and unlikely he would win the general, but of the three candidates besides Romney, he is in the best position.