Sabato's Crystal Ball

The 55th Quadrennial Orgy Begins…

The race for president (part 1 of 2)

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics January 25th, 2007

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And so it has begun–if you don’t count the twenty-six months that candidates have already been organizing for the 2008 presidential contest. The nation’s 55th consecutive election for President is well under way.

Presidential campaigns are endless and continuous now, with the next one starting the day after the previous one ends. But there’s no doubt we’re already in the thick of things, with a “mere” twelve months to go before the first real votes are cast in Iowa next January.

In some sense it has always been this way. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were quietly maneuvering to succeed President George Washington years before our first Chief Executive stepped down. In the old days, though, the salons and supper parties served as the primaries, and they were rarely covered in print. The citizenry got a long respite between campaigns. No longer.

Let’s state the obvious up front: Two years before the Inauguration, even Nostradamus would have a hard time picking the winner; we won’t even bother to try. No one can know the atmospherics that will prevail a year from now for the party preliminaries, much less in the autumn of 2008. Closer to the time, we’ll join the great guessing game with all of our colleagues.

Certain things can be postulated. IF the Iraq War is still ongoing through 2008, and still as much of a policy disaster as it is at present, the Democrats will have to try hard in order to lose the presidential election. Even one of their weaker candidates might be able to capture the White House. But it’s at least possible that the Iraq front will have calmed down by late 2008, one way or the other.

Mainly, at this very early stage, there are only questions–the answers to which will determine the election result. Will the economy be robust and soaring, or spiraling toward one of our periodic recessions? Will gasoline prices be stable or skyrocketing? Will slimy scandals affect one side disproportionately? Will some social issue rise to the top of the pile and dominate the rhetoric of our politics? Will natural or man-made disasters force themselves onto the campaign radar? Will the American electorate be in a mood for continuity or change?

Continuity or change…this is the key. Often Americans turn to the out-of-power party after two terms of the other party’s control. The Democrats won the Presidency this way in 1960 and 1976, and the Republicans did the same in 1968 and 2000. What do all four of these elections have in common? They were very close contests that easily could have gone the other way.

Not infrequently, the two-term rule doesn’t work. Harry Truman, defending four Democratic terms in 1948, held on to win a fifth. The Democrats got only a single term with Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), yet Ronald Reagan was able to deliver a third consecutive term to his Vice President, George H.W. Bush. Coupled with the near-successes of the in-power party in 1960, 1968, 1976, and 2000, is the two-term rule really a rule at all?

Now, there are rules of the game that can be mapped out ahead of time, pre-determined by the Constitution. Here’s an obscure one. The Crystal Ball has long been fascinated with potential ties in the Electoral College, since there are more than 80 ways for this to happen (and at least a dozen plausible scenarios, given the states’ current party leanings). Our last prediction in 2000 was for a 269 to 269 tie between George W. Bush and Al Gore. It almost happened, with the final tally at 271 to 266. (Gore should have had 267 EVs but a D.C. elector was faithless.)

In 2000 and 2004, an Electoral College tie would have produced a GOP win for the White House, assuming no party defections in the U.S. House of Representatives. Tied Electoral Colleges are resolved by the House, of course, with each state having a single vote and state delegations voting as a unit (26 votes needed to elect a President). Republicans controlled a majority of the state delegations in the past two elections. But the 2006 midterm election has changed this reality. Whereas before the election, Republicans had 30 states to the Democrats’ 17, with three state delegations tied, now Democrats have 27 states, Republicans 21, with two ties. While special elections in 2007-2008 and the November 2008 general election for the House could conceivably reverse the Democrats’ newfound advantage, for now this Electoral College coin flips in the Democratic nominee’s favor. Is it an omen or an irrelevancy? As the TV reporter often says, “Only time will tell.”

Oh dear, now the Crystal Ball has run out of other things to say and will actually have to address the specific candidates. There is little more than conventional wisdom to offer on them just now, so we’ll keep it brief. We simply don’t know how the issues predominant a year from now will frame the contenders, or how they will actually perform on the campaign trail, in the actual hothouse of presidential politics. That even applies to Hillary Clinton, who has been in the hothouse for years but not as the White House candidate–the most special, pressured role of all. Running for senator or serving as the spouse of the candidate is not the same.

Still, in the past two years, we’ve visited several dozen states, most of them repeatedly, and had a chance to discuss Hillary with thousands of people. Her fairly consistent lead in the polls is far more fragile than most observers appear to realize. Democrats undeniably like and respect her, but they also sense that she will have a difficult time winning in November, absent an irresistible Democratic tide. Her cold, aloof persona, combined with the dozens of major controversies that have enveloped her since the 1980s, are off-putting to a significant slice of the electorate, including the critical independents and moderates who produced the 2006 Democratic victories. And then there’s her husband. Wildly popular among Democratic activists though he is, Bill Clinton has a history of scandal almost unparalleled in modern times, save only for Richard Nixon. Since he would be moving back into the White House, presumably, with his wife the President, he will be fair game for journalists and opponents on the campaign trail. Everyone instinctively knows what this means, so it needs no elaboration here. Do Democrats need to burden their campaign of restoration with Clinton scandals, old and new? Does the country want to revisit and extend the muckraking for four or eight more years? And don’t forget about the small-‘d’ democratic argument. Should only two families supply all the U.S. Presidents between 1989 and 2017? This is the American Republic, not a banana republic (look it up kids, it’s not just a store…).

The Democrats have already lost two of their best positioned general election candidates, moderates Mark Warner and Evan Bayh. A Warner-Bayh or Bayh-Warner ticket would have been a winner in November 2008 if, as is likely, they could have taken the 49 Republican Red electoral votes of Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia and turned them Democratic Blue. No GOP candidate now running would probably be able to turn more than a handful of currently Blue EVs to Red against a moderate Democratic ticket.

Moderates Bill Richardson and Tom Vilsack, while hardly frontrunners, have the potential to fill the gap left by Warner and Bayh. They have the right profiles (governors not senators) and the right home addresses (West and Midwest–Democratic target areas, not Northeast–already a Democratic bastion). Richardson’s incredibly rich resume–the only governor with a credible foreign policy–and his Hispanic heritage are impressive pluses, too.

Yet the two non-Hillary candidates receiving the most press attention are Barack Obama and John Edwards. Obama is a sensation, though he has never been tested and lacks broad experience in virtually every way. Still, he has more charisma in his pinky than the rest of the field put together, and his multi-racial background and fresh-faced optimism make him a metaphor for what many Democrats may be looking for in a 21st century presidential candidate. Edwards has about as thin a record as Obama, and can be considered yesterday’s man, but he also possesses invaluable name ID and exposure from the ’04 campaign. Moreover, his decision to run to the left of Hillary in a left-tilting party should not be underestimated. Poverty, Katrina, and universal health care are an appealing issue combination for liberal Democrats. Obama and Edwards’ chances in the general election remain uncertain.

We continue to believe Al Gore won’t run. Other candidates have broad experience but major flaws: Joe Biden (shopworn), Chris Dodd (lacks a compelling rationale), and Wesley Clark (never elected to any office). However, this far in advance–and being old enough to remember 1976 and Jimmy Carter–we refuse to rule out anyone. Well, almost anyone. Somehow, we don’t think Dennis Kucinich is going to get any more traction in 2008 than he did in 2004. Never say your Crystal Ball isn’t bold.

This nomination could conceivably go to almost any candidate, despite the binary nature of the early press coverage (Hillary and Obama). Fundraising will matter considerably, though it isn’t the whole story despite attempts by some to make it the alpha and omega of politics. The fates will matter more than the funds. And we have studied presidential politics long enough to know that early analyses such as this one can only pose what-if’s, not predict what-will-be’s. Welcome, dear readers, to another cycle of fun and frolic on your Crystal Ball.

NEXT UP: More Presidential Observations…and initial commentary on the large GOP Field.