Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Presidential Prizefight ’08

Ideology Versus Electability in Both Parties (Part II: The Democrats)

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics January 18th, 2006

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In last week’s installment of the Crystal Ball, we explored the myriad of possible Republican White House contenders for 2008, the lack of an obvious successor to President Bush, as well as the wide open nature of the 2008 party primaries. This is only the fifth time since the dawn of the twentieth century that the incumbent President or Vice President has not been running–the earlier examples were 1908, 1920, 1928, and 1952.

And now to the Democrats. The most compelling element of the 2008 contest for the Democrats, in the Crystal Ball’s view, will be their burning desire to end GOP control of the White House. George W. Bush’s reign will have extended over eight years, but to Democrats, who deeply despise this President, it has already seemed like an eternity. Hatred of a President among party activists can produce wise or unwise outcomes. Democratic true believers may incorrectly think that their fellow citizens fully share their opinion of Bush and will inevitably elect the person they choose as their nominee in order to punish the Republicans for Bush’s multitudinous sins. Or Democrats may allow reason to triumph over emotion by picking a nominee who does not fulfill all their liberal fantasies but has a good chance of winning.

Today much of the Washington punditocracy is betting that Democratic ideology will once again trample electability, producing a left-wing or controversial presidential candidate who will elect McCain, Allen, or whoever secures the GOP nod. The Crystal Ball understands this, given the Democratic Party’s modern history, but we choose the opposite scenario. We guess that, for once (or more, if you count Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992), Democrats will select a more moderate, possible winner–perhaps after an early flirtation or two with more ideologically pleasing contenders.

The categories of “liberal” and “conservative” are a bit arbitrary for intra-party comparisons, since if you got these Democrats in a room and put the session off-the-record, we’d bet there wouldn’t be much difference substantively on 95 percent of the big issues facing the nation. But the ideological distinction is still crucial, since it will enable some Democrats to package themselves, via paid and free media (that is, TV ads and the press), as closer to the ideological midpoint of the electorate. For the White House, moderate Democrats have a better chance of winning, and liberal Democrats usually lose.

The most prominent liberal candidate for 2008 unmistakably recognizes this reality. Senator Hillary Clinton of New York has been trying to move to the middle by taking a few unexpected stands, such as sponsoring legislation to ban flag-burning, and taking a Bush-lite position on the Iraq war. Sen. Clinton has many fine qualities, including impressive intelligence, political savvy, and broad-based experience that is unparalleled in the 2008 Democratic field. The amount of money she will raise is awe-inspiring, nearly certain to break all records in both parties. However, Sen. Clinton is the very essence of controversy, as she has just proven again with her Martin Luther King Day race-card remark comparing the Republican-run House of Representatives to a “plantation”. Whatever her specific stands, she is perceived, probably irrevocably, as a liberal by most Americans. She would also be the first woman President, and no matter what people tell pollsters about their open-minded willingness to have a female commander-in-chief, there could be a significant electoral cost on account of gender bias. There are also personal adjectives imputed to Senator Clinton that are unattractive, such as “cold,” “devious,” and “harsh.” Maybe this portrait is unfair, maybe it is untrue. But it is reality, and the reality will be ignored by Democrats at their considerable peril.

Moreover, Mrs. Clinton has many pieces of baggage left over from her husband’s administration, including scandals that involved her–and a thousand unanswered questions about them. A presidential campaign by Mrs. Clinton will reopen those controversies, and legitimize the old doubts about her and the relationship with her husband. After all, should she be elected, Bill Clinton would be moving back into the White House. President Clinton may be more popular these days as he settles into the less controversial role of former President, but that status would be revoked as he auditioned for the role of First Gentleman. While most Americans are willing to let bygones be bygones for this former President, they do not necessarily want to give him a new lease on the White House in an encore presentation of “two for the price of one.” To sum up: The nomination of Hillary Clinton would be an enormous gamble by Democrats. Instead of a laser-like focus on the inadequacies of the Bush administration, the campaign might well turn out, at least in good part, to be rehash of the mistakes and scandals of the Clinton years. The GOP nominee might get a pass, positioned as an unsullied alternative, while Americans sought to turn the page on both the Clinton and Bush eras after 20 consecutive years of two-family rule.

The other liberal candidates may be even less credible as a winning Democratic nominee. John Kerry had his chance in 2004, and few are anxious to repeat that experience. John Edwards has shrewdly picked the underclass as his issue (even before Hurricane Katrina), but his thin public office resume and weak base of support in North Carolina are serious obstacles; he also had his first, best chance in 2004. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is a fine fellow, an honest, principled public official, but he is well to the left, has no real appeal in most Red States (especially in the South), and would test the limits of Americans’ tolerance in a couple of ways (he is twice divorced and Jewish). His relatively early call for withdrawal from Iraq has made him a liberal favorite among bloggers and activists, a la Howard Dean in ’04, so he cannot be dismissed in the Democrats’ nominating process. Still, Feingold, under most circumstances, would be an easy mark for the Republicans in the fall. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware will have had 35 years of Senate experience by 2008, and few know foreign policy as well. Yet his tiny base in Delaware, limited fund-raising potential, and off-putting speaking style make him quite a long-shot. Biden’s performance in the Alito confirmation hearings did nothing to help him, either, and few graduates of Princeton University will be signing up for his campaign, we suspect. Some liberal Democrats keep talking about Al Gore and Howard Dean, but neither one will, or should, run.

The moderate Democrats have several options, but one now stands out above the rest. Governor Mark Warner has just finished a successful stint in Virginia’s top job, having well managed a difficult fiscal situation and also having elected a more liberal successor, Tim Kaine, in a conservative Red State. Warner built an attractive record in a wide variety of areas, from education to mental health to the environment, and he truly made the most of the one four-year term to which Virginia’s Constitution still limits its governors, consecutively. Although a certified suburban yuppie, Warner made deep inroads in rural areas by lavishing attention upon rural people and their problems. He adopted NASCAR, country music, and an antipathy to guncontrol. With roots in Indiana and Connecticut, not just Virginia, Warner has the wealth and the appeal to run an impressive national campaign. Southern Democrats and many DLCers have flocked to him especially in the wake of Warner’s 2005 off-year triumph in November. Having praised Caeser, Brutus should note Warner’s drawbacks as a presidential candidate. The rich communications mogul has only served a total of four years in public office; he has no foreign policy experience at all; and he famously broke his insistent, George H.W. Bush-like 2001 campaign pledge that he would not raise taxes. Whether Democrats or the country as a whole actually care about any of these sour notes, only the 2008 campaign itself will demonstrate.

Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana is yet another respectable, mediagenic, family-oriented moderate with presidential ambitions. In the deeply Red Hoosier state, Bayh has won two landslide elections as governor and two as senator. These eleven Midwestern electoral votes, possibly combined with the twenty from neighboring Ohio, might be deducted from the GOP and added to the Democratic column by Bayh–making a Republican presidential victory difficult mathematically. A Warner-Bayh or Bayh-Warner ticket could be well nigh unbeatable, with Warner adding Virginia’s thirteen electoral votes and probably West Virginia’s five. The total of forty-nine electoral votes from these four Red states (OH, IN, VA, WV) would be nearly impossible for the GOP to make up, should this come to pass. Republicans need not worry: The Virginia-Indiana pairing makes so much political sense that the Democrats will never actually do it. This is not to say that Bayh has no disadvantages. The good senator is, well, boring and cautious to a fault. Even well funded, as he is likely to be, it is difficult to imagine how he gets traction in a large field.

Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico is a three-fer: a natural executive, a Westerner for a party that needs to crack the Southwest code, and a public official of unusually rich experience (congressman, UN ambassador, energy secretary, diplomat extraordinaire, and so on). Oh, and did we mention that he’s Hispanic, a member of the most fought-after ethnic grouping in America today? Rumors about his amorous personal life notwithstanding, if Richardson decides to run, he’ll be a factor at the least. Rounding out the moderate subset for the Democrats is two-term Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a finalist for VP on John Kerry’s ticket in ’04, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, an unsuccessful presidential candidate last time out. Both fall into the dark-horse category at the starting gate. Vilsack is more credible as a candidate than Clark, having been a successful governor of a critical launching pad for presidents. Of course, if Vilsack competes in Iowa, he may keep others out, thereby ruining the caucuses on the Democratic side. In addition, if he doesn’t clean up on caucus night, he’s set up for a comedown, courtesy of his home state voters. Clark made more sense in 2004, and he didn’t do well then. With no elective office to his credit, Clark will have a difficult time; while a bright, able public servant, he is no Dwight Eisenhower.

Surprise candidates are just as possible on the Democratic side as the Republican. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois would automatically land in the top tier the instant he announced. He says he won’t run in ’08, and likely he is telling the truth–though the VP slot is a real possibility for this charismatic African-American.

As always, the presidential contest will be decided in November 2008 by the big issues of war and peace, the economy, and scandal. Yet the personalities, characters, and positioning of the candidates loom large as well. Should one party pick a nominee who is manifestly closer to the nation’s large moderate, independent pool of voters, that party will be on track to victory–especially if the other party has selected a standard-bearer widely viewed as an ideologue of left or right. The age-old clash of ideology versus electability will be visible on both sides of the partisan divide in 2008. The party that veers nearer to the practical pole of electability will be more likely to prevail at the voting polls in November.

Click here for more information about the results of the 2005 Virginia Post-Election Poll.