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Referendum on the Incumbent

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Conventional wisdom suggests that the current refusal of the GOP base to accept Mitt Romney as the de facto presidential nominee will doom the party to failure in the fall. The thought is that too many debates, too much sniping among the candidates, and an overall enthusiasm deficit will leave the nominee -- and the odds still favor Romney -- mortally wounded.

But this election was never going to be decided so much by voters affirmatively choosing the Republican candidate as by whether they were going to reject Barack Obama. Second-term elections are always a referendum on the incumbent, not the challenger. And when Americans have chosen to turn out a sitting president, it has rarely been because the challenger was so much more appealing. The qualities of the challenger aren't irrelevant; they're just not as decisive as the perceived success or failure of the incumbent.

In 1980, Americans chose to give Jimmy Carter the boot. Inflation and interest rates had gone through the roof on his watch, and unemployment had risen. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and its surrogates had made inroads in the United States' own backyard. Carter made Americans feel bad about themselves, so they voted him out of office. Many Americans didn't know all that much about Ronald Reagan, and the media tried to make him out to be a reckless cowboy, but voters knew they didn't want more of Carter.

The same could be said of George H.W. Bush. Voters liked him enough when he pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the hundred-hour war, but by the time re-election rolled around, things had changed. Bill Clinton was a small-time governor from a southern state but became the Democrats' nominee largely because better-known candidates with bigger reputations hadn't bothered to run. But he won because voters were tired of Bush.

Americans made a huge gamble when they picked Barack Obama in 2008. They chose an inexperienced and little-known but charismatic figure who promised change at a time when the country was in deep crisis. In many ways, he was a tabula rasa on which voters wrote their own hopes and dreams. They saw in him what they wanted to see.

In November, the voters will decide whether or not they made a mistake -- and, if so, a big enough one to gamble again on the new guy.

Obama's outsized personality was a huge factor in 2008. He seemed bigger than life, with a story that can happen only in America. He started life with many disadvantages. His father abandoned him -- and later his mother did as well, sending him to live with her parents while she pursued a new life in another country with a new husband and child. He moved around from place to place, never quite belonging wherever he was. And he was black, which, until Obama's election, most analysts would have regarded as a major impediment to being elected president.

As it turned out, Obama's race was probably a factor in favor of his election. Voting for Obama made many Americans -- white and black -- feel good about themselves. It allowed them to exorcize the demons of the country's past racism. But in 2012, race will be, as it should, a non-factor.

Obama's biggest challenge in 2012 will be running against the Barack Obama of 2008. Will Americans be sick of his grandiose rhetoric? Will they believe they're better off now than they were four years ago? Will they believe he delivered on that "hope and change" message? Or will they feel cheated?

The best thing the Republican nominee may have going for him is that he is not Obama. The GOP nominee may be a bit battered, but he'll also be battle-tested. And by Nov. 6, voters may just have had enough of Obama to try their luck again by picking the other guy -- no matter who he is.

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