Sabato's Crystal Ball

Hate: The Common Demnominator

More Powerful in Politics than Love, It's Driving this Democratic Nominating Contest: And The Bush White House May Be Ignoring That, At Its Peril

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics January 28th, 2004

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For those of us old enough to remember the long and winding career of Richard Nixon, a strange parallel is beginning to emerge. Presidents are almost always disliked by members of the other major political party, but in American history only a few are truly hated by a large number of their partisan adversaries. In the past half-century, only two Presidents have been deeply loathed by the other party: Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Bill Clinton. Democrats didn’t just want Nixon to lose, they wanted him banished, humiliated, and impeached. Republicans didn’t just want Clinton to lose, they wanted him banished, humiliated, and impeached. Nixon and Clinton were detested, not respected; nothing they did or could do would ever be recognized as having redeeming value by the opposition.

No one yet has seriously mentioned impeachment for George W. Bush, but he has won admittance to the Nixon-Clinton category of hated presidents. The Crystal Ball happens to believe this is not fair, not wise, and not good for the nation. But it occurs from time to time because politics, and the international and domestic policy choices of presidents, stir strong emotions. More importantly, certain presidents have personal characteristics that inflame the opposition: Nixon’s untrustworthiness, Clinton’s sleaziness, and Bush’s cocksure arrogance (as perceived – real or not – by the president’s enemies).

But there is something new. In 1972, Democrats’ hatred of Richard Nixon was not enough to produce a strong nominee against him. In fact, Democrats were so unconcerned about electability that they chose perhaps the weakest possible candidate: George McGovern, who lost in a November landslide. Likewise, in 1996, the Republicans’ powerful desire to beat Bill Clinton did not yield a potent nominee. The GOP picked the “next in line” candidate: Bob Dole, who lost by a wide margin to Clinton. In 2004, however, Democrats are clearly going with their heads, not their hearts (even as we approach the Feast of Saint Valentine). Rightly or wrongly, the activists voting in the early contests are often passing over their first choice and selecting the candidate they believe can win in November. Thus, the Democrats of 2004 may accomplish a feat that eluded the Democrats of 1972 and the Republicans of 1996.

On the other hand, that assumes that Democrats are actually picking the most electable candidate. For all of his attractive advantages, John Kerry is still a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts and Ted Kennedy’s colleague in the U.S. Senate, with much the same voting record as Teddy. It is difficult to imagine Kerry carrying any Southern state, or winning most of the Border states or Rocky Mountain states. His victory, if it is to come, must be fashioned almost precisely on the no-margin-for-error Gore 2000 model – with perhaps a vice-presidential nominee putting a marginal Bush state or two in play.

Still, this is turning into a rough and tumble few months for President Bush. The Democrats have dominated the news media – every channel, every hour, with the exception of the State of the Union address. The White House intended the SOTU to overshadow the Democrats, but instead, in a parable of the election year so far, the Democrats running for President ended up overshadowing the State of the Union. Bush has been prodded and pummeled and pulverized by his Democratic opponents, the press, the dismal jobs picture, the deaths of more American troops in Iraq, and the nagging absence of weapons of mass destruction. There is no question that this is the natural season for the out-party to reign supreme, but the Democrats’ unity of opposition to Bush on every issue has kept the campaign a symphony rather than a cacophony, building toward a crescendo of anti-Bush fervor. The Democrats are pumped. The Bush White House appears blissfully ignorant of that reality, at least early in the campaign season.

The Final New Hampshire Results

Turnout total: 219,246 (100 percent reporting) – 23 percent of eligible voters, 32 percent of registered voters

So where do we go from here? More to the point, where do the CANDIDATES go from here?

The easy thing to say is that John Kerry is effectively the Democratic nominee for president. And maybe it’s true. But the Crystal Ball refuses to shut down this race until the voters do. (Will someone explain something to us? Why do our friends in the press strain to end the BIG story when their profession’s success – keeping readers and viewers – depends on stretching out the BIG story?)

The candidates ARE going to stretch out the big story, because none of the ones who count are going to drop out immediately. So let’s take them one by one, in the order of their New Hampshire finish:

JOHN KERRY: New Hampshire’s voters have transformed Iowa’s Big Mo into Massive Mo for Kerry. The Massachusetts senator will charge into Missouri with a giant head of steam, probably with a useful endorsement from former Sen. Jean Carnahan, and try to turn his psychological poll lift into wins in perhaps four of the seven states with balloting on Feb. 3. He’ll try for a quick kill of the rival he now fears the most, John Edwards, in South Carolina. [More below] Everywhere he stops he’ll land as a conquering hero. If the schedule allows, a visit to every state will show Kerry is running a national campaign, and it gives him the possibility of a near-sweep, or – dare we say? – a real sweep. If that happens: GAME OVER. At the same time, what’s that noise? It’s the press and political vetting machine gearing up, fresh from destroying Howard Dean (even BTS…Before The Scream). And oh, does that hellish machine have a lot of Senate votes and pre-Senate actions by John F. Kerry to examine and rip to shreds.

HOWARD DEAN: Not to put too fine a point on it (or say it’s the only bee in his bonnet), but Dean has lost Iowa and New Hampshire, both where he once led, so a mediocre second in the Granite State does nothing for him. Had the exit poll been correct, with Dean over 30 percent and just a half-dozen points behind Kerry, Dean could have claimed to be the “comeback kid.” That’s no longer credible with the New Hampshire results. Dean has no chance now in South Carolina. His only real opportunity for victory comes in Arizona and/or New Mexico. And he’d better win something. Without a clear victory on Feb. 3, Dean can plan his post-presidential candidate life. Yes, he’ll say that Michigan and Wisconsin and Illinois are his. But they aren’t, even if they once were. And his percentage will shrink from week to week if there’s no state in his pocket on Feb. 3.

WESLEY CLARK: Remember when Wes Clark was nipping at Howard Dean’s heels for FIRST place in New Hampshire just 10 days ago? That was before the general’s latest series of gaffes and conspiracy theories. The Crystal Ball’s favorite, and a nominee for the Hall of All-Time Gaffes, was General Clark’s pulling rank on Lieutenant John Kerry, ignoring the inescapable fact that there are far more lieutenants than generals out there. (Readers should correct us if we’re wrong; all those generals giving 24-hour-a-day analysis on seven networks during the Iraq war suggest a larger contingent of top brass than we had ever dreamed, possibly explaining much of the national deficit.) Now, it’s on to Oklahoma, North Dakota, and elsewhere for Clark, who seems oblivious to the fact that most Democrats have settled on candidates with lengthy, believable Democratic pedigrees and significant political experience.

JOHN EDWARDS: It came straight from the horse’s mouth on Tuesday night: Edwards must win South Carolina. If he doesn’t he’s done. And, with apologies to KC and the Sunshine Band, that’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, Kerry likes it: a make or break race for the newly popular Southern candidate. “Massive Mo” may do it to Edwards, and Kerry has help from the endorsement by long-time Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings, but it will be tough road nonetheless. After all, Sandlappers have seen neither hide nor hair of the Bay State senator since he officially announced his campaign in Charleston on Sept. 2, 2003. No other state voting on Feb. 3 really matters to Edwards so he’d best stay on the ground in the Palmetto State for a week. Should he win, it’s off to Virginia and Tennessee on Feb. 10.

JOE LIEBERMAN:The Northeastern senator and 2000 vice-presidential nominee skipped Iowa and chose a Northeastern state to make his stand — and he finished fifth in New Hampshire with 9 percent. On primary night, Lieberman boasted a dead-heat for third place and claimed that the Granite State has “put him in the ring.” Sure he’s in the ring, but what he fails to realize is that he’s lying on the mat, down for the count. It’s sad in several ways, and while Lieberman apparently will make a last stand in Arizona on Feb. 3, win or lose there, he is clearly not going to be making a return appearance on the 2004 Democratic ticket. On the other hand, maybe Al Gore will abandon the sinking Howard Dean and endorse Lieberman. Yeah, that’s the ticket…

AL SHARPTON AND DENNIS KUCINICH: Why bother? As our mothers told us, if we have nothing good to say, say nothing at all. But we sure wish Alice Roosevelt Longworth were still alive. As the vivacious daughter of Theodore Roosevelt once said, “If you’ve got nothing good to say, come sit next to me.”