US President-elect Barack Obama acknowle
Emmanuel Dunand  /  AFP/Getty Images
At his election night celebration in 2008, Barack Obama greets the crowd, with his wife Michelle and daughters by his side.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 4/28/2011 12:04:36 PM ET 2011-04-28T16:04:36

While the political world remains preoccupied with showdowns over a government shutdown, a looming debt ceiling, and what President Barack Obama described as the "silliness" of the debate over his birth certificate, there are other developments happening now that will define the structure and shape of next year's presidential campaign.

The 2012 Republican nominee will be attempting something that has been done only three times in American history: defeating an incumbent Democratic president.

The GOP field remains a work in progress — several contenders have established committees, while not yet "formally" declaring their candiacies, while others have said they will not run. But regardless of who emerges as the Republican nominee next year, here are five story lines that will help define the campaign between now and then.

The incumbent advantage
“We ought not to act like an incumbent; we ought to act like an insurgent campaign that wakes up every single day trying to get every single vote we can,” said Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina in a message to supporters on Obama’s campaign website this week.

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Messina’s “incumbent as insurgent” idea sounds like an interesting experiment, but there’s no precedent for a president relinquishing the advantages of incumbency.

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

He’s the one who goes to summit meetings with foreign leaders, and he’s the one who declares a state a disaster area and orders in federal aid after a tornado strikes. He takes action, the challenger can only talk.

The 1964, 1972, 1980, 1992, and 1996 campaigns all demonstrated the power, but also the limitations, of an incumbent’s strategy of portraying his challenger as ideologically eccentric, radical, untested, or even dangerous.

That strategy failed at the tail end of a recession, in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush said his rival, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, needed to "level with the American people" about his activities as a young man, specifically Clinton’s marijuana smoking, evasion of the draft, and journey to Moscow as a student in 1969.

Video: Obama reveals long-form birth certificate (on this page)

Two of Obama’s Democratic predecessors, Clinton in 1996, and Lyndon Johnson in 1964, exploited the advantages of incumbency, but their success had as much to do with their opponent’s flaws as with their own strengths.

In two cases where the incumbents lost, 1980 and 1992, they went into the months before Election Day with appalling approval ratings, as measured by the Gallup Poll.

Jimmy Carter and Bush each touched bottom at about 30 percent approval and never were able to recover, no matter how hard they tried to make their opponent the issue.

For example, Carter in his debate with Ronald Reagan a week before the 1980 election, called Reagan’s ideas “heartless,” “very dangerous” (four times), “extremely dangerous and belligerent,” “irresponsible” (twice), “disturbing” (three times) and “very disturbing” (twice).

Obama has begun to run his version of the incumbent campaign. At this stage, it seems likely he and his surrogates will link the GOP nominee to the Tea Party and House Budget chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to fundamentally redesign Medicare and phase out the open-ended entitlement.

Obama has already been at work at this: he said in a recent speech that Republicans’ message to people over age 65 was “tough luck, you’re on your own.” They are, he said, “deeply pessimistic” with “a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them.”

Messina said the Obama camp will expand its "ground game," the person-to-person canvassing which operated out of more than 700 field offices in 2008. According to research by political scientist Seth Masket, Obama's field offices tipped three states into his column in 2008: Florida, Indiana and North Carolina. It is notable that while the GOP campaign moves along in fits and starts, the Obama effort is well under way.

Calendar calculations
Before 1972, a presidential candidate was unlikely to find himself in Keokuk, Iowa (pop: 10,400) unless he was on a family bald-eagle-watching trip.

Nowadays, a visit to the southeastern-most outpost of the Hawkeye State signals serious courtship of the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus goers, whose votes have catapulted the likes of George McGovern, Barack Obama, and Mike Huckabee into the national spotlight.

But Iowa — and fellow first primary state New Hampshire — haven’t held on to their influential spots on the calendar without a fight.

In 2007, Democrats in both states joined South Carolina and Nevada in asking candidates not to campaign in any other states that tried to leapfrog the first four contests sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. (The main targets: Michigan and Florida, which were threatening an earlier primaries.)

All major Democratic candidates signed the pledge, and the DNC initially stripped Florida of its convention delegates to make an example of the state, although it later allowed them to take their seats at the convention.

The dispute forced the first four states to move their contests earlier in the year, prompting a flurry of New Year’s Eve campaigning that earned grumbles from candidates and journalists alike.

The drama could be repeated this year. Republican Party officials are hoping that Florida will back down from its currently-scheduled late January primary date. If Florida Republicans don’t budge, that date would preempt the contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada — all currently scheduled for February.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus told reporters this week that traditional early states would make their contests earlier if Florida stands firm. The result: An earlier and more compressed primary season.

As the wrangling over the calendar continues, observers can expect to hear the critique that Iowa is not diverse enough to serve as the first springboard for the presidential race. Just 3 percent of voters in the 2010 midterms in the state were black or Hispanic; one recent poll grabbed headlines for finding that nearly half of Iowa Republican primary voters don’t believe that Obama was born in the United States.

Florida's electorate in the 2010 midterms, by contrast, was 23 percent black or Hispanic. And the state's foreclosure, poverty, and unemployment rates are much closer to national averages than those of Iowa and New Hampshire.

As former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum argued, "Florida looks a lot more like the America in which most Americans live."

Message control
When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced a “testing the waters” organization this year, journalists lit up Twitter with commentary about the site’s generic multiracial-crowd background image and quickly identified the image as a stock photo. Within a day, a Tumblr.com site called “NewtInFrontOfStockPhotos” emerged, giving web users nationwide the chance to superimpose the candidate’s image over silly commercial images.

Social media use among politically-active internet users has jumped in the last four years, and it’s also become more bipartisan, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

In 2010, a quarter of adults said that the Internet was their main source of campaign news, compared to just 7 percent who said the same in 2002.  And 22 percent of online adults used sites like Facebook or Twitter to share or learn information about politics.

Aaron Smith, who researches the Internet and politics at Pew, says that so many more politically-active voters are getting involved with social media because “they see appeal in the ability to have a more personal connection with the candidates that they support and the campaigns they follow.”

That involvement allows candidates to more easily activate their supporter base, and creates a wealth of personal and contact information for campaigns to mine. 

But social media can be a double-edged sword.

“You don’t necessarily have control over what your supporters are doing with your information,” Smith said.  “When you talk to folks who are doing this kind of [new media work], there is always a concern that they’ll lose control of the message.”

Despite the proliferation of new means of communication, traditional venues still matter. In Iowa, for instance, Republican presidential hopefuls may be better able to reach likely caucus goers through media such as the Jan Mickelson show on Des Moines AM radio station WHO than through Twitter or Facebook.

New channels for money
This year there will be new channels for money. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which Obama denounced, gave corporations, unions and individuals the ability to covertly finance an advertising campaign attacking or supporting a candidate. They cannot directly fund a presidential candidate’s campaign but they can, in effect, run their own parallel campaign.

In the 2010 election, money was routed through tax-exempt groups, known as 501c 4’s, which collected donations from individuals or corporations, with the donations shielded from disclosure under tax law.

“They were several of them very active in 2010, mostly on the Republican side. But that will change in 2012. We’ll see 501c4’s active on both the Democratic and Republican side, I predict,” said Paul Ryan, associate legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan organization that favors greater disclosure of contributions. (Ryan is no relation to the House Budget Committee chairman.)

Donald Tobin, an expert on the intersection of tax law and campaign finance law and a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, predicts “an amazing explosion of these 501c4s in 2012.”

At least one Democratic affiliated 501c4 has begun to operate. The question is whether the new money and the additional ads will be effective: will an extra $2 million in TV ads in Missouri, for instance, shift it from the Republican column, as it was in 2008, to Obama?

Demographic shift and the Electoral College
“We expanded the electorate” in 2008, Messina said in his briefing for Obama supporters this week. The total electorate did expand, but not by much, about 4 percent, over 2004. In the 2008 election, 64 percent of voting-age citizens voted, no different from the 2004 turnout rate.

As we re-learn every four years, it's a contest for electoral votes and it is won by winning individual states, not by running up the popular vote total.

Of course, what the Democrats did do in 2008 was to increase the number of Democratic voters, especially in states such as Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, and Ohio, enabling Obama to carry those states, all of which Democratic candidate John Kerry had lost in 2004.

Just as significant as Obama building the Democratic vote in 2008 was the drooping Republican turnout: in Iowa, for example, John McCain got 9 percent fewer votes in 2008 than Bush did in 2004.

The ten states on which Messina focused in his briefing as targets for 2012 are the ones Obama won in 2008 but where Republicans won gubernatorial or U.S. Senate races last fall.

One can further narrow Messina’s list of ten down to seven which Bush won in 2004: Nevada, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. All but one of them now has a Republican governor, which should help the GOP nominee with voter turnout efforts.

While Obama has the luxury of spending the rest of 2001 and all of 2012 courting voters in those swing states, the Republican contenders will be spending far more time in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, battling it out for the nomination. 

Due to reapportionment, 12 electoral votes have moved from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West.

Texas, with four more electoral votes than in 2004, and Florida, with two more, are bigger prizes than ever before, accounting for nearly a quarter of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

The Sunbelt states have many eligible Latinos who are not registered to vote: two million eligible but unregistered in Texas, and more than 400,000 in Arizona, according to Matt Barreto, a pollster for Latino Decisions and a University of Washington political scientist. McCain carried Texas by about 950,000 votes in 2008 and Arizona by about 195,000 in 2008.

“I never write off any states,” Obama recently said to Texas TV reporter Brad Watson, seeming to be annoyed by Watson's suggestion that Obama wouldn’t contest the state in 2012.

Although Messina said Obama “won first-time voters by a large margin in '08,” they were a relatively small percentage of the electorate, 11 percent, compared to voters 60 and older who accounted for 23 percent of the electorate.

Given the Ryan plan for Medicare redesign and given the Republican success in winning nearly 60 percent of over-65 voters in 2010, they may be the essential 2012 demographic. That’s why Medicare is looking like a dominant issue in 2012.

msnbc.com's Carrie Dann contributed to this story.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: Does Gary Johnson have a shot in 2012?

  1. Closed captioning of: Does Gary Johnson have a shot in 2012?

    >>> back to politics, and the first republican presidential debate is a week away.

    >> believe it or not.

    >> greenville, south carolina . former minnesota governor tim pawlenty and ron paul will appear at a tea party rally ahead of the debate that will be headlined by governor haley.

    >> the candidate called the most libertarian in america, no contest, and the tea party before rick santelli be there? we'll ask now. former new mexico governor who jumped into the race, governor johnson, why are you running as a republican? why aren't you running for the nomination of the libertarian party ?

    >> well, chuck, i've been a republican my entire life and got to serve two ter terms as a governor of mu mexico in a state that's 2 - 1 democrat. as republican as they are libertarian, i'm out here in a contest to try and be the spokesperson for the republican party .

    >> well, i don't have to show you the polls. here's the latest one from gallup. a long list of potential candidates and, sir, you're at the bottom of it. less than 1%. what are you hoping to accomplish here?

    >> well, i'm in this to actually win the race, and i understand the realities. i accept the realities. you know, i think it's a gar contest, and -- a fair contest and i understand the rights. it is corollary to my running for governor of new mexico where the primary was in june and in february of the same year i was at 2% of the republican vote then. so i understand the process. i have no complaints with the process. thanks for having me on your show here, because this might just help out. you know, this might jump it another, i don't know, 1.01%. whos to say?

    >> governor, the reason i ask, the libertarian question and people that aren't familiar with your background, you're very much a purist as far as when it comes to being a libertarian conservative , and you don't want government involved in any parts of life, whether it has to do with social issues or fiscal issues. you know, the republican party of today is dominated by a lot of social conservatives . how can you sell a program that says, you know what? legalize marijuana, not going to talk about abortion. gay rights , you know, not going to touch any of those issues. this is not a place government should be. how do you sell that to the republican party of south carolina ?

    >> well, this is a contest. i think that i might speak on behalf of half of republicans right now. but if you don't give them this option, if you don't give them this checkoff, why, they're going to check off somebody for the rest of world that's going to be the voice ever the republican party , and i am offering an alternative here and i would just -- i never apply labels to myself, chuck. i just don't do it. i think that -- i think perhaps this is very republican and we'll see. i get to, like i say, i'm engaged in this contest and first and foremost this country is bankrupt. i think we're on the verge of a financial collapse and that's in lieu of the fact we have $14 trillion in debt of which we just can't repay given the deficit this year, last year, the year before, years going forward, and i don't put the current administration at fault for that. i think both parties share in that, because when republicans controlled both houses of congress and the presidency, they passed the prescription health care benefit and ran up record deficits at that time, too. it's really a shared responsibility for where we've gotten to.

    >> quickly, you said in the past that every time you pass a law you take a bite out of freedom. what are the top two or three laws you would want to get rid of right away?

    >> well, when you look at government and what government does, if i could just use education as an example. what would be the best thing that the federal government could do when it comes to education nationwide? i think it would be to abolish the federal department of education , giving states back the ability, 50 laboratories of innovation, something i'll talk about in my campaign, has this country was designed for. 50 laboratories of innovation when it came to education would genuinely come up with best practices . there would, of course, be failure. best practices get emulated, failure avoided. washington knows best, top-down, doesn't work. and the federal government gives the states about 11 cents out of every dollar states spend for education but it comes with 16 cents worth of strings attached. it's really a negative to take federal money. don't give the states any money, but do away with the strings and the mandates and you know what? we'd see education improve dramatically in this country.

    >> all right. former new mexico governor gary johnson . a new republican candidate for president. wanting to have a policy and ideological debate inside the party. good luck to you. we'll be watching.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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