Sabato's Crystal Ball

What an Election!

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics September 4th, 2008

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Two tickets full of history, one headed by the first African-American in position to become president, the other with a woman situated to become the nation’s first female vice president. Could it be that, in this increasingly diverse nation, we have seen the last of the all-white male party offerings that have characterized every presidential election in American history until 2008? The Crystal Ball bets so. With whites slated to become the minority in the United States by 2042, and with women increasingly being elected to the key stepping-stone offices of governor and senator, the transition to the future has begun. What is historic today will seem normal by mid-century.

The newest additions for 2008 are the vice presidential nominees. Democrat Joe Biden is a classic Washington fixture-a household name among political people and, before his selection, almost unknown in the average American household. I still remember the TV commentators on election night 1972 marveling over this 29-year-old from Delaware who had defeated Sen. Caleb Boggs (R) in a giant upset. President Richard Nixon’s reelection sweep of the First State was not enough to save Boggs. Not yet of the constitutionally mandated age of 30 for Senate entry, Biden was immediately speculated about as a future White House resident. That talk was premature, for sure; it took Biden 36 years and two failed presidential campaigns to make it to the bottom half of the ticket. Along the way, he gained a reputation as a dedicated senator on matters ranging from judicial nominations to foreign policy, but also as an unusually loquacious legislator who shot from the lip and just couldn’t shut up.

Obama needed someone like Biden to answer the experience challenge against him. Probably to some wavering independents, Biden’s place at the table will be reassuring as they contemplate a President Barack Obama making tough national security and foreign policy decisions. However, it will be interesting to see how Biden gels with Obama. Remember that Biden never endorsed anyone else after dropping out in early 2008. At 65, he no doubt thinks, in his heart of hearts, that he is far better prepared for the presidency than the short-term, 47-year-old Sen. Obama. Can he stick to calling Obama ‘boss’, as did in a recent 60 Minutes piece? Can he temper his tongue to prove his detractors wrong when they call him ‘the mouth’ and ‘a gaffe machine’? And what about the many thousands of votes he has cast in the Senate since 1973, and the millions of words he has uttered on the public record? The Republicans must be hard at work analyzing all of them-and it will take an army of researchers to do it.

Republican Sarah Palin was a surprise pick for John McCain. She had floated on and off the extended lists of Veep possibilities, but no one but McCain and a few top aides knew how serious this was. There’s no question she was a hit with the conservative party base when these stalwarts learned of her selection. As a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment governor, Palin thrilled conservatives, especially fundamentalist Christians, far more than McCain ever had. The ‘enthusiasm gap’ between the charged-up Democrats and the less excited Republicans may close a bit as a consequence-although this remains to be seen. Palin’s gender also gave McCain an opportunity to make a pitch for disillusioned Hillary Clinton backers; early polls have suggested 20 percent to 30 percent of her 18 million voters were alienated from Obama.

Palin is certainly a political phenomenon. In 2006, never having held major office, she managed to defeat the incumbent Republican governor, Frank Murkowski, in a primary landslide, and then Murkowski’s two-term Democratic predecessor, Gov. Tony Knowles, by another wide margin in November. Few successful gubernatorial candidates for governor in American history can boast of besting two governors in the same year. She accomplished the feat as an ‘outsider-reformer’, an image that clearly appealed to McCain and resembled his own.

At the same time, Palin is a considerable risk for McCain. It is already obvious that he barely knows her. The two had probably had a total of less than two hours of personal and telephone contact-ever-before she was named to the ticket. Some Republican analysts already question how thoroughly she was vetted, though the full truth has not been revealed. As the author of Feeding Frenzy, I sense a few media investigations in the works, as the press and public try to assess Palin’s fitness to be a heartbeat from the presidency in a potential administration headed by a 72-year-old man with a history of dangerous melanoma.

And that really is at the heart of the problem for McCain. The legitimate inquiries about Obama’s thin resume become much more difficult to pursue given the Palin choice. Her 21 months as governor of a lightly populated state are no more impressive than Obama’s 32 months as a U.S. senator. (Palin’s prior service as mayor of a small town and Obama’s as an Illinois state senator are not insignificant, but in no way are they impressive either.) The day of press reckoning is approaching. How much does she know about the world? How much has she traveled? How familiar is she even with the needs and geographies of the other 49 American states? Obama underwent a grueling two-year campaign that educated him about the nation, after all.

The choice of vice presidential nominees tells us important things about the presidential candidates: their judgment, preferences, values, decision-making styles, and so on. Voters absorb this information and incorporate it into the mosaic they create in their minds of the two potential presidents. However, let’s also remember that, by late October, the Veeps will be yesterday’s news. Having surfaced once for the VP debate on October 2, they will recede to the background. Practical American voters will choose between Obama and McCain, far more than between Obama-Biden and McCain-Palin. They choose presidents, not vice presidents, in their polling places. Given that nine vice presidents have succeeded directly to the top spot, perhaps we ought to consider the ticket as a whole more thoroughly-but by and large, we do not.

Notice that we have had no mention here of Hurricane Gustav or of the unwed pregnancy of Gov. Palin’s daughter. Neither event will have a decisive effect on anything. Gustav was not the storm of the century, and the most vital parts of the GOP Convention will now likely proceed on schedule. And the foibles of underage children of candidates ought to remain as private as possible, and this is the view of a large majority of Americans. I have taught enough children of politicians to know that they didn’t choose a public life, many aren’t enamored of it, and they all deserve to make the mistakes of adolescence in their own way, out of the glare of the spotlight-just as the rest of us did.