WASHINGTON — Handicapping an election 19 months away seems relevant only to political junkies except for this: Expectations, as shrewd investors know, affect actions.

The Republican presidential field might be more formidable if President Obama were less strongly favored. And over time, what Congress does will be shaped by the presidential campaign’s direction.

Views of 2012 are heavily influenced by the metaphors that prognosticators invoke. Will it be 1984, 1988 or 1992?

Obama’s camp loves 1984. President Ronald Reagan’s popularity plummeted during the economic downturn of his first two years, and Republicans did badly in the 1982 midterms. Then the economy roared back and so did Reagan. He won the landslide Obama’s handlers dream about.

Republicans like 1992. In the year before the election, the smart money was on President George H.W. Bush’s re-election. But out of nowhere came a young Democratic governor named Bill Clinton. He took advantage of economic discontent and the way Ross Perot’s independent candidacy shook up the campaign. Bush lost with only 37.5 percent of the popular vote. Republicans want to believe Obama is as invisibly vulnerable now as Bush was then.

Both comparisons are flawed. Obama will get stronger as the economy improves but he won’t be able to get close to a Reagan-like triumph, given how many core Republican states seem impossible to crack. The problem with the Republicans’ 1992 metaphor is that while Bush may not have seen Clinton coming, many Democrats had identified him as an awesome talent years before he ran. None of the current GOP contenders can claim this.

I like 1988 (the year the first President Bush defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis) as a metaphor for the Republicans’ stature problem. That year, the Democratic hopefuls came to be known as “the seven dwarfs.” This wasn’t fair to them, and it may not be fair to this year’s Republican field, whatever its eventual size. But the dwarf line speaks to an image deficit shared by both fields.

Of the current GOP bunch, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is the Dukakis of 2012. I say this as someone who is fond of Dukakis and believes he was an excellent governor of Massachusetts. He just wasn’t a great presidential candidate. The strength Pawlenty and Dukakis share is the absence of any glaring shortcomings. Dukakis was the remainder candidate, the guy most likely to be left standing. That looks like Pawlenty’s role this year. But it’s also hard to see Pawlenty escaping Dukakis’ eventual fate in a general election.

Mitt Romney, the sort-of, kind-of front-runner, is intelligent and well-organized. But his lack of constancy on certain issues and the Massachusetts health care plan (which he should be proud of fathering, but has had to disown) hurts him with primary voters. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is the guy you would most want to have a drink with, but that’s not necessarily the key to winning a nomination. Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana is bright and substantive. He should run, but I don’t think he will.

Then there’s the rest — Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump and Jon Huntsman. I can’t see any of them making it, but keep an eye on Trump’s economic nationalism and his tough-on-China rhetoric. If he cans the birther nonsense, The Donald might surprise people.

For the election, here’s the math: With the new census, the states Obama carried last time (plus the lone elector he won in Nebraska) start him with 359 electoral votes. From his original states, Obama can lose Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Virginia and North Carolina and still win exactly the 270 electoral votes he needs — as long as he holds his other states, notably Pennsylvania and Florida, and that single elector from Nebraska. Under this scenario, if he also lost the one Nebraska vote, the Electoral College would be tied, 269-269.

This gives Obama a lot of maneuvering room, but note that Pennsylvania and Florida both trended Republican last year. So Obama is certainly the favorite, but I’m not in the camp that sees the election as over before it starts.

And in the congressional races, something could happen in 2012 that’s never happened before: Both houses could switch parties but in opposite directions. The Democrats could take back the House — the GOP is defending a lot of Democratic-leaning seats — while Republicans could take over the Senate, given the difficult array of states Democrats must win. If this actually happens, remember you read it here first.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group


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