I went running Saturday with a Republican friend and a friend who is now a former Republican. In between admiring a purple house and numerous friendly dog encounters, we talked a bit about the 2012 election.
One rather interesting point that came up is that a majority of voters prefer a Republican over Obama, yet prefer Obama over any of the candidates who have declared their candidacy. This reminds me a bit of some of the odd examples and counterexamples brought up when we discussed decision theory in graduate school (like people preferring A to B and B to C, yet preferring C to A). It also provides just a hint of metaphysics: people prefer the universal Republican over the particular Democrat Obama, but prefer the particular Democrat over any particular Republican. As such, if the Republicans could put the Platonic form of Republican up against Obama, they would win in 2012. Unfortunately for the Republicans, they have to run specific Republicans.
While these preferences might seem odd, they can be explained easily enough. When people claim they would prefer a Republican over Obama, this most likely reflects three facts. First, many people do not approve of his performance. Second, because of this, people would prefer and alternative. Third, the only viable alternative to Obama is a Republican. In terms of Obama being preferred over any specific Republican, this can be explained in at least two ways. One, which is favorable to Obama, is that Obama is actually seen as being better than the Republican candidates. To use an analogy, this would be somewhat like being low on food and having only canned peaches and canned pineapples to eat. I might like pineapples more than peaches, but I might like the the specific brand of pineapples less than I like the specific brand of peaches. Hence, I would rather have a pineapple than a peach, but I’ll pick the specific canned peaches over these specific canned pineapples. If this explanation is correct, then Obama has a decent chance of winning in 2012.
Another explanation, which is less favorable to Obama, is that the preference for Obama is created because of the competition between the Republican candidates. Going back to the food analogy, I might like pineapples more than peaches, but the pineapples might be of so many varieties that my preference is thus divided up. So, I go for the peaches because there is only one sort to pick. If this explanation is correct, then things might improve for the Republicans when they finally settle on their candidates. At that point, the choice would not be between Obama and numerous Republicans, but between Obama and a Republican. As such, even if the specific Republican is not well liked, enough voters might vote against Obama so that the Republican is elected.