Road to the White House: Landscape and Issues
COUNTRYWATCH SPECIAL REPORT: USA ELECTION 2008
by Dr. Denise Youngblood Coleman, Editor-in-Chief
1. The Road to the White House: Landscape and Issues
Presidential Race: Introduction
The 2008 presidential election promised to be one of the most significant in recent times. Of predominant importance has been the fact that there is no incumbent contesting the race. President George W. Bush cannot run for another term and Vice President Dick Cheney has said that he would not seek the presidency. Neither of the Democratic contenders in 2000 and 2004 appeared interested in pursuing the presidency again either. Coming off his victories – an Emmy award, an Academy award, and now his status as Nobel Laureate, Al Gore has said that he would not contest the 2008 race, and prefers to spend his time advancing his environmental mission. John Kerry has returned to the Senate as an active and vocal member of that body, and wants to continue on that path.
Second, the pool of major candidates has evoked interest, likely because many of these candidates do not fit the typical mold of American politicians to date. In many senses, the identities of most of the main candidates has sparked interest (whether positive or negative) among the public and certainly, within their respective political parties.
Among Republicans, socially-liberal Rudolf (Rudy) Giuliani, as well as the moderate and Mormon Mitt Romney, do not appear to be reflective of the values of conservative and evangelical base of the Republican Party. Nevertheless, Republicans appear willing to consider both of these candidates, thus indicating a likely ‘civil war’ brewing within the party. Indeed, Mike Huckabee’s folksy style has been gaining traction among the grassroots conservative and evangelical base, particularly among those who eschew the policy stances in the past of Giuliani and Romney. While Fred Thompson’s record is more in keeping with standpoint Republican policy, his personal background as an actor brings another dimension to the race. John McCain, the war hero, has returned to the presidential front in the hopes of finally accomplishing his objective of 2000. Ron Paul’s anti-war and libertarian platform has commanded a cult following among some fringe GOP factions. Both anti-immigrant Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter have not bee regarded as likely to win the nomination, but they have been known for their strong positions on issues important to the party.
Among Democrats, Hillary Rodham Clinton has the distinction of being the most well-known female politician on the American landscape today, and she is the first woman with a real chance of not only winning the nomination, but the White House ultimately. But Clinton has also to deal with strong negative feelings from the conservative end of the electorate who will strongly eschew the notion of another President Clinton. Barack Obama brings a similar sensibility to the race. Fresh and youthful, Obama attracts crowds like a rock star and is the first African-American to have a genuine chance of winning not only the nomination, but also the White House. Edwards has returned to the fore after being Kerry’s running mate in 2004. Media-friendly, Edwards’ populist message has made him a star of the left-leaning blogosphere. Bill Richardson is the first candidate of Latino heritage; his resume is perhaps the most impressive of the entire field having extensive legislative, executive, domestic and foreign policy experience. Strong credentials also characterize the campaigns of Joseph (Joe) Biden and Christopher Dodd. The biting criticisms of Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel often make Democratic debates edgy; both have very long odds of winning the nomination.
The current issues of the day -- (health care and the economy), the national mood (marked by gloom and the quest for change), as well as the global geopolitical landscape (anxiety-ridden due to the war in Iraq, United States relations with Iran, the continuing threat of terrorism, and impaired global alliances) -- present a complicated picture. The public’s awareness of these factors is expected to inform not only their decisions in whom they vote for, but also the priority they place on this election season itself. In many senses, apathy is a thing of the past. As illustrated by a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 34 percent of respondents said that they had given “a lot of thought” to the presidential candidates, while 39 percent said they have give “some thought” to the matter. Together, it would seem that the presidential options have captured at least some attention of a full 73 percent of people. Indeed, only 26 percent said they had given “little” or “no thought” to the presidential campaign. In this way, it would be fair to conclude that the public -- regardless of political persuasion -- appears to understand the significance of the choice before them.
Presidential Race: For Consideration
Historian Allan Lichtman devised a formula in 1981 to predict the outcome of presidential elections. The formula considers certain key elements, including economic data, foreign policy developments, domestic stability vis a vis unrest, the midterm election results, as well as the charisma and appeal of the candidates. According to Lichtman’s formula, not since Reagan’s re-election victory over Mondale in 1984 has the political field so favored one party over the other. Now, it would be foolish to predict a Democratic victory in 2008. That said, the current data data, the expressed issues of concern, the mood of the electorate, party identification and confidence, the overall election landscape, as well as the “Bush effect,” together favor the Democratic side of the equation rather than the Republicans.
A discussion of these considerations follow just below.
Presidential Race: The "Bush Effect”
In 2002, a popular President George W. Bush had such strong coattails that his party was able to win more seats in the Senate, and thus control over both houses of Congress. At the time, Bush advisors including Karl Rove talked about a long-term Republican majority.
This view was reified in 2004 when Bush won re-election and fellow Republicans continued to hold clear control of both houses of Congress. In his victory speech in 2004, Bush noted that he had a “mandate” to govern and expected to spend his “political capital.” Some of that political capital was spilled in his failure to pass Social Security reform. That political capital was further dissipated by the following scandals:
- the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina
- the insertion of Republican legislators into a right to die case [case of Teri Schiavo] in Florida
- the issue of stem cell research
- the position on global warming despite overwhelming scientific evidence attesting to the urgency of the climate crisis
- energy independence and the high price of gas
-the indictment, prosecution and guilty verdict for a top Bush executive for identifying a clandestine Central Intelligence Agent
- the practice of "extraordinary rendition" to "black sites" or secret detention facilities abroad where torture may have been carried out on detainees
- resistance to anti-torture legislation
- a Supreme Court ruling that essentially chastised the administration’s failure to apply the Geneva Conventions to detainees
- revelations about flawed or deliberately "cherry picked" evidence leading to the invasion of Iraq followed by growing opposition to the handling of the war there
- doubts among the American public that the war on terror is being won and that the country is more secure
- the revelation that the administration authorized the wiretapping of domestic telephone calls without requisite warrants and by bypassing "FISA" courts
- the decision to allow an Arab country to control some of the country’s major ports
- immigration policy
- revelations about scandalous behavior by Christian evangelicals known to be stalwarts of the White House
- corruption scandals, the most famous of which included for top Republican Tom Delay and Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff
- a Justice Department that lost confidence of the public due to the firing of US Attorneys on political grounds and problematic testimony by then-Attorney General Gonzales on the matter- new revelations that the administration misled the American people about Iran’s nuclear program
As such, from the 2004 election to the present, disenchantment with both Bush and the Republicans in Congress grew increasingly among the American public. The aforementioned scandals, as well as terribly devolving support for the war in Iraq, enraged the public, likely pushed undecided and Independent voters towards the Democrats, placed Republicans squarely on the defense.
Consequently, Republicans lost control on both house of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections. That loss was largely attributed to the public’s lack of confidence over Republican leadership both in the White House and on Capitol Hill, as well as the Congressional Republicans’ tendency to “rubber stamp” Bush policies, rather than exerting influence as an equivalent branch of government.
Although Bush is not running for re-election in 2008, as illustrated by the outcome of the 2006 mid-term elections, there has been speculation that the "Bush" effect could negatively impair Republican candidates running for the presidency.
Note: For the last year – from January 2007 through June 2008 – and with more than 100 polls registered, Bush’s job approval ratings have been as high as 39 percent and as low as 25 percent. In this way, he has had the dubious distinction of being one of the most unpopular presidents in recent history over a sustained time period. Most unlike 2002 and 2004, the year 2006 and now, 2008 , may well be marked by the “reverse coattails” of Bush.
Presidential Race: The Issues
In terms of issues, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll taken in May 2007, 43 percent of those surveyed said that Iraq was the most important issue in the 2008 presidential election. The economy was a distant second place at just over 14 percent, while healthcare followed with 10 percent. In the last 50 years, only the Vietnam War in 1968 and inflation in 1980 held greater resonance among the voters than Iraq in 2008. It should be noted that the party in power lost the presidential race in the 1968 and 1980 elections respectively.
Now the high priority placed on Iraq can also be partly attributed to pro-war Republicans who staunchly support President Bush. The problem has been that most Democrats, as well as most independents, have been strenuously against the current path in Iraq. United, they are far more formidable in terms of influence and sheer numbers. Should the situation in Iraq not improve significantly later into the fall of 2008, Republicans who reify Bush’s policy in Iraq are expected to face a serious challenge in the election. On the other hand, progress on the Iraq front would be helpful to Republicans espousing policies consistent with Bush policy. Apparent success in the military surge, measured in a drop in the death toll in Iraq in recent months, could improve Republicans’ stances on the war, if the trend is sustained.
The emphasis on Iraq continued to dominate in the following months, according to several polls taken from the spring of 2007 though the summer of 2007. That said, in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll taken in May 2007, as well as a CBS News/New York Times poll taken in July 2007, Iraq continued to top the list of priorities, but terrorism/national security tied with the economy/jobs for second place only a few percentage points behind. Typically, the entry of terrorism and national security onto the canvas would be expected to benefit Republicans, however, an NBC New/Wall Street Journal poll taken in the same period showed that the public viewed both Republicans and Democrats as being equally capable of dealing with terrorism, although Republicans had an advantage in the realm of homeland security.
By the October of 2007, there was something of a shift in consciousness as the economy and jobs began to register strongly as priority issues among voters. In a Newsweek poll, Iraq dropping a few percentage points into second place behind the economy, while a CBS News poll showed Iraq at the top of the list, but only one percentage point ahead of health care, with the economy and jobs in third place along the issue hierarchy. The increasing emphasis on domestic issues – normally stronghold concerns for Democrats – was thusly expected to tilt things in favor of Democratic candidates.
A survey by the Pew Research Center at the start of November 2007 appeared to register voters’ resetting their attention on Iraq. The Pew Research Center’s study found that Iraq was indeed the main issue of the day. But Iraq aside, the other major issues of concern for voters were, as aforementioned in the earlier surveys, the economy and healthcare. Education also factored as a key concern. Among most voters (as opposed to the Republican base), terrorism, abortion and gay marriage, were not mentioned in the top tier of priority issues.
In the same period, a survey by NBC News/Wall Street Journal showed Iraq as the main concern, with health care 10 percentage points lower in second place, followed closely by economic growth and employment. Terrorism, illegal immigration, the environment and energy were mentioned in the secondary tier of priorities, whereas social issues (abortion and gay rights) mustered only minor support.
In this way, standpoint Democratic “kitchen table” concerns were increasingly commanding greater resonance among the American public in 2007, as opposed to the issues that animated the Republican platform in 2004.
Illegal immigration appeared to break out somewhat as a concern in a Gallup poll taken in late November 2007. While Iraq remained the number one priority, with the economy and health care in second and third place respectively, illegal immigration moved into fourth place as an issue to be considered.
In the period of late November and early December 2007, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll appeared to reify some of this movement. Again, Iraq, the economy and health care, registered as the top three issues. But terrorism and illegal immigration were recorded as being the next most important concerns respectively among respondents.
In December 2007, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll, the top three issues -- Iraq, the economy and health care – prevailed, while immigration, the environment, gas, poverty and terrorism garnered roughly the same support (around three percent). The gap between the level of support for the top three issues as compared with the rest was noteworthy.
Also in December 2007, a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll showed the economy usurping Iraq as the top priority. Up to 57 percent of respondents expressed fears that the country was slipping into a recession and most citing the economy as the top issue, with the Iraq close behind in second place. As with other polls, health care remained securely in third place in terms of priorities. Illegal immigration and terrorism were featured further down the list of priorities.
Even with this shift (making the economy the biggest concern, according to CNN/Opinion Research Corporation), the three priority arenas have remained the same for some time. Indeed, throughout the year 2007 and now, well into 2008, Iraq, the employment/economy and health care have been cited as the most important issues facing the country and of concern to voters.
The consistency and stability of these results indicate that candidates who discuss these issues regularly as part of their policy platform will likely to garner voters’ attention, if not outright support. The next tier of issues, including immigration, environment, energy, national security and terrorism, appear to move with some fluidity in the polls, indicating that they are not constant concerns for voters. Candidates campaigning strongly on any one of these issues, to the detriment of Iraq, the employment/economy and health care, are likely to attract the attention of a smaller segment of the voting public.
Clearly, capturing the attention of voters is no guarantee that a candidate will also capture voters’ support. Bill Clinton campaigned partially on the basis of healthy meat in 1996 and won re-election handily. No one would seriously argue that healthy meat was a captivating issue in that election, which ultimately translated into victory. Clinton had the benefit of incumbency, was generally popular among the American public, and held the confidence of the electorate in his leadership abilities.
As the 2008 election approaches, there is no incumbent contesting the election, there is a lack of confidence in the outgoing head of state, the political landscape is far more complex than in the 1990s, and the American people bear a great deal of anxiety about the state of the nation and the future. Candidates unwilling to respond generatively to this constellation of factors are unlikely to do well in the election process.
Presidential Race: The Mood of the Electorate
The mood of the electorate ahead of the 2008 presidential election has been decidedly anxious, ridden with pessimism, and ready for change. As exemplified by the priority issues mentioned by voters (noted above), the war in Iraq, the economy and the rising price of health care are frustrating and concerning the electorate. That frustration and concern is translating into a general malaise felt by the public about the current state of affairs, a high level of anxiety about the future, and a desire for a significant change, ostensibly intended to life the cloud of gloom and alleviate the anxiety.
One way to examine the national mood is to consider the “right track / wrong track” index over a significant period of time. To that end, in April 2007, a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll showed that 48 percent of people though that things in the United States were going either “very well” or “fairly well” whereas 51 percent thought that things were going “pretty badly” or “very badly.”
The Harris Poll, also taken in April 2007, showed a more stark result with 26 percent of people saying that the country was moving in the right direction and 67 percent saying that the country was moving in the wrong direction.
From May 2007 through August 2007, Newsweek carried out five surveys measuring the level of satisfaction among Americans with the direction of the country. The range of results showed that 24 percent to 27 percent of people were satisfied with the direction of the country while 67 percent to 71 percent were dissatisfied.
From May 2007 through October 2007, NBC News/Wall Street Journal polled people on whether they believed the country was headed in the right or wrong direction. The range of results for four polls showed that 19 percent to 25 percent of people were satisfied with the direction of the country while 63 percent to 68 percent were dissatisfied.
From May 2007 to October 2007, Gallup polled people on whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied with the track of the country. The range of results for six polls showed that 24 percent to 27 percent people were satisfied with the direction of the country while 71 percent to 73 percent were dissatisfied.
Two polls taken in June 2007 and October 2007 by the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg showed that 24 percent and 23 percent of people thought the country was on the right track respectively, while 69 percent and 66 percent thought the country was on the wrong track.
A poll by the Pew Research Center in October 2007 showed that 28 percent of people thought the country was on the right track, while 66 percent thought it was on the wrong track.
In a survey taken by USA Today/Gallup in November of 2007, an overwhelming 72 percent of those interviewed said that they were dissatisfied with how things were going in the United States; only 26 percent was satisfied.
From May 2007 though December 2007, Associated Press/Ipsos carried out eight polls intended to determine the public’s sentiment about the direction of the country. The range of results for these polls showed that between 21 and 30 percent of people thought the country was headed in the right direction, while 66 to 75 percent of people thought the country was moving in the wrong direction.
In the first part of 2008, various polls by Associated Press/Ipsos and Gallup, among others, continued to show that more than two-thirds of people surveyed believed the country to be on the wrong track.
Thus, it can clearly be seen that an extraordinarily high level of dissatisfaction (gloom) has held steady for several months. In fact, not even a full one-third of Americans have been happy with the direction of the country from April 2007 though December 2007. This malaise has lasted longer than any other such negative phase in 15 years. Indeed, the last time Americans felt this level of dissatisfaction and angst was 1992 when President George H. W. Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton, and when H. Ross Perot received more support than any other third party candidate in eight decades.
Not surprisingly, such pessimism and anxiety about the state of the nation – in this case, under a Republican administration -- breeds the desire for change. Whereas weary Democrats and Independents clearly fit into that category of people seeking a significant shift in direction, even among Republicans, a full half of Republican voters in the early primary states said that they also wanted a candidate who would make some change the path of the country, rather than continue Bush’s policies.
In the past, as noted above in the case of the elder Bush, this pessimistic and anxious mood among the electorate has spurred political upheaval. Should such negative sentiment prevail well into 2008, the Republican candidate who wins his party’s presidential nomination will be in serious trouble, while the Democratic nominee will benefit from the public’s negative mood and spirit of discontent.
Presidential Race: The Election Landscape
In 2004, when Bush won re-election, people identifying themselves as Republicans outnumbered those identifying themselves as Democrats. But for all the reasons already discussed, the landscape had changed by 2006. Democrats in 2006 outnumbered Republicans by four percentage points, according to Gallup polls. Including Independent voters who “leaned: Democratic, the advantage rose to ten percentage points. By 2007, the Democratic advantage over the Republicans in terms of party affiliation was significant. Indeed, Democratic Party identification was at its apex – the highest recorded numbers in two decades. Rasmussen Research noted that in late 2007, 37.4 percent of the electorate identified itself as Democratic, while 32.5 percent of the electorate identified itself as Republican. These percentages were relatively unchanged from September 2007 through December 2007.
Party identification aside, there is also the issue of how the parties are viewed. Today, the Republican Party is viewed more negatively than positively by the American public. In fact, Republicans have a net negative rating of nine percent since 51 percent of the electorate view the party unfavorably while 42 percent view it favorably. Conversely, the Democratic Party is viewed more positively than negatively by the American public. Indeed, the Democratic Party enjoys a net positive rating of 13 percentage points with 55 percent viewing it favorably and 38 percent holding an unfavorable view.
In addition to the positive or negative resonance of the two main parties, there is also the matter of confidence – that is, the extent to which the two respective parties are viewed as capable of dealing with the main challenges facing the country. On this question of confidence, Democrats enjoy a notable advantage.
In October 2007, the Pew Research Center found that the public expressed greater confidence in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party in key arenas. Democrats were seen as more capable of bringing about needed change, governing in an honest and ethical way and generally managing the federal government. The Democratic Party's advantage in these arenas remained as strong as it had been in 2006, just before the mid term elections.
Reflecting this trend, Rasmussen’s polling shows that the public has greater confidence in the Democrats than the Republicans on ten key issues. In November 2007, Democrats enjoyed greater trust from the public in dealing with corruption and ethics, the economy, healthcare, education, immigration, Social Security and Iraq. Republicans enjoyed greater trust in three areas – abortion, terrorism and taxes.
Given these various advantages enjoyed by the Democratic Party, pollster Scott Rasmussen observed, “The Republican brand is a drag right now on their party’s candidates.” That “drag” could well have real effects on the outcome of the presidential election, if the results of the 2006 mid-term elections are any indication.
Indeed, this significant shift in partisanship could yield tangible consequences, according to Jeff Jones of Gallup Polling. Chief among these possible effects is that the electoral landscape in key battleground states, such as Florida, Ohio, New Mexico, Iowa, and Missouri, could well be altered. As well, states not normally thought to be battleground terrain, such as Virginia, Arkansas, Montana and Nevada, may now be “in play” for the Democrats, based on these trends. To this end, Jones of Gallup noted that in 2003, there were 20 Republican-leaning states and 14 Democratic leaning states. Today, there are six states where Republicans have a clear advantage, and 33 states where Democrats have the edge.
In early 2008, the Republican "brand" saw some improvement, according to Rasmussen, with Republican identification at a two year high. Democrats correspondingly saw their ranks slightly decrease. It was too early to tell if this movement was temporary and due to attention on GOP contenders in the primary season, or if there was a sustainable trend toward more balanced partisan affiliation. Still, again according to Rasmussen in January 2008, Democrats held an advantage over Republicans among unaffiliated voters who said that they trusted the Democrats more than Republicans over the main issues of the day. In February 2008, a poll by ABC News and Washington Post showed a similar result, with Democrats strongly preferred over Republicans on the issues of the economy, handling the budget, dealing with Iraq, anti-terrorism and healthcare; they were modestly preferred over the GOP on immigration and taxes.
By the spring of 2008, Rasmussen showed Democrats surging again in terms of party identification, as compared with Republicans. Of course, one key consideration involves whether individual Democrats will vote along party lines in November 2008, if their preferred candidate does not win the nomination. Turmoil in the Democratic Party as a result of the contested primary process could well mitigate any registration advantaged it enjoys over the increasingly unified Republicans.
Another means of considering the election landscape ahead of the 2008 presidential election is to consider the two main political parties’ level of motivation – that is, their motivation to win the presidency. Who “wants” to win the presidency more? It would be to easy to conclude that while Republicans are hoping to hold on to control of the executive branch of government, Democrats are highly motivated to seize control of the presidency. Thus, a more concrete means of measuring motivation is to examine the amount of money raised by candidates in the race. Who has managed to motivate voters to reach into their pocketbooks and contribute to campaigns?
In the past, Republicans have had a strong financial advantage over Democrats. Quite simply, the commercial and corporate interests of standpoint Republicans resulted in their ability to raise more money and to attract funds from those with deep pockets. In the 2000 election, Al Gore’s campaign made the decision to abandon the swing state of Ohio – which Gore ultimately lost only by a few percentage points – largely because there was less money available. George Bush’s campaign, on the other hand, had no shortage of money to spend, even allowing Bush to compete in Democratic-leaning California, which he ultimately lost quite handily to Gore. Stated differently, more money allowed Bush to compete in states he was unlikely to win, whereas less money prevented Gore from competing in a state he had a decent chance of claiming.
Today, however, the financial situation has changed and Democrats can compete with Republicans in the cash arena. In fact, in 2007 and well into 2008, Democrats enjoyed a cash advantage over Republicans, given their success in raising money for many campaigns.
Some analysts have attributed the Democrats’ recent financial success to the presidential campaign of Howard Dean in 2004, which was able to attract a large volume of small donors over the Internet. That “small donor + volume” model has spread to other campaigns with productive results. Others have noted that the model, in conjunction with the proliferation of the left-leaning blogosphere, have together stimulated the growth of a highly motivated and active Democratic base, willing to donate money in the interests of advancing change. Clearly, the same dynamics are at play on the political right as well. Republicans also try to encourage campaign donations of any size, and there is no shortage of right-leaning blogs helping that process along. In the end, however, the numbers tell the story of which party is more motivated to part with cash in order to support certain political campaigns. The answer is: The Democratic Party.
In late 2007, leading Democratic candidates raised twice the amount of funds as the leading Republican contenders. Hillary Rodham Clinton raised $23.7 million over the summer (2007), and had more than $35 million available, while Barack Obama raised over $20 million in the same period, and had more than $32 million available. John Edwards, who sought to take matching funds, raised more than $7 million but still had $12 million in cash on hand, while Bill Richardson raised more than $5.2 million. By contrast, Mitt Romney raised $9.5 million over the summer (2007) but spent more than twice that amount. Even though he infused his campaign with $8.5 million of his own personal funds, his campaign was operating with a deficit. Rudolf (Rudy) Giuliani raised more than any other Republican in the same period -- $11.6 million – but he also spent more than $13 million without even running television advertising in key primary markets. Fred Thompson, unlike the two other Republicans, raised between $8 and $12 million and only spent half that amount. John Mc Cain raised about $5 million.
Note: In early 2008, Obama reported raising $32 million in January alone; in February, Clinton reported raising $32 million while Obama raised $55 million. Both Democrats continued to raise money handily through the spring of 2008. McCain was at a disadvantage in this regard for the start of 2008, however, in April 2008, he managed to raise close to $20 million. That amount in April 2008 nonetheless trailed the funding advantages of Clinton and Obama.
Now money aside, it should be noted that while Mike Huckabee has demonstrated a dismal ability to raise money, it has not stopped his meteoric rise in the polls. It is too early to conclude the reason why Huckabee has enjoyed such success without a lot of financial expenditure. That said, it can be suggested that he has attracted conservative “values” voters uncomfortable with the social positions of other Republican candidates. That is to say, among conservative “values” voters unenthused with their options, Huckabee presents an alternative, thus they are willing to expend their voting support, if not their cash. As of early 2008, John McCain, who also has had raised a dismal amount of money, appeared to fall into this category of candidates without a lot of money, but still able to draw out voters at the polls.
In this way, the Huckabee and McCain cases introduce another consideration on the political landscape: -- the level of enthusiasm evoked by the pool of presidential candidates within the two major political parties. On that issue, Democrats appear to be generally more enthused about their candidates in comparison with Republicans.
In May 2007, an article in USA Today stated that Democrats had a 10 percent advantage as regards their “enthusiasm” level compared with Republicans. David Yepsen, a political columnist for the Des Moines Register in Iowa – the state where the first presidential caucus is held – observed that Democratic events attract more people and generate more enthusiasm. To that end, he said, “You go to a Democratic event and they've got more people and more enthusiasm, even for the second-tier candidates." He went on to note, "If you took a decibel meter to a Democratic event and a Republican event, you could measure it: The Democrats make more noise." But Ed Gillespie, the former Republican national chairman, forecast that the level of enthusiasm would eventually “equalize” when a Republican nominee is chosen and as the party faithful unites their interests in anticipation of the general election.
Clearly, neither Yepsen’s subjective observation, nor Gillespie’s prognostication, can be viewed as factual evidence of the comparative level of enthusiasm. However, voters can be polled on their relative levels of enthusiasm and one can draw reasonable conclusions based on those polling results. According to a poll by USA Today earlier in 2007, one in three Republicans expressed dissatisfaction in their choice of nominees. Conversely, only one in five Democrats were hoping for an additional choice of candidates.
In November 2007, a poll by the Pew Research Center appeared to bolster this sentiment expressed months earlier in the year. Morale among Democrats regarding the presidential election appeared to be higher, with Democratic voters expressing more enthusiasm and positive sentiment, as compared with Republicans. Democrats reported paying closer attention to campaign news than Republicans, and said that they had given significant thought to the presidential field of candidates. On the other hand, Republicans were reported to be less engaged with campaign news, and were more likely to rate their choice of candidates negatively. Indeed, 46 percent – almost half of Republican and Republican-leaning voters -- rated their choice of candidates as either fair or poor. By contrast, only 28 percent of Democrats offered fair or poor ratings for their choice of candidates.
Moreover, only weeks ahead of the Iowa caucus and, according to a New York Time/CBS News poll, none of the Republican candidates was viewed favorably by even half of the Republican electorate. On the other side of the equation, two top two Democratic contenders – Clinton and Obama – were both well past the highly important 50 percent threshold in the favorability rankings. In fact, despite pronouncements of Clinton being a polarizing figure, Democrats at the national level appear to view her in overwhelmingly positive terms. Her favorability rating among the Democratic electorate was 68 percent. Clinton's problem, however, resided with her high unfavorability ratings among the general public in 2007. As of early 2008, though, her favorability/unfavorability rating was about even -- 49/50 percent, according to Rasmussen.
Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton would well be a boon to the Republicans by providing them with some much needed motivation to go out and vote against her in November 2008, according to some analysts. On January 22, 2008, Gerald Seib acknowledged in the Wall Street Journal that there was, indeed, an "intensity gap" between the Republican base and Demcoratic base. However, he wrote if Clinton was the Democratic nominee, anti-Clinton hatred would be so strong as to motivate Republican voters to go to the polls in droves. Other options for increasing Republican intensity included another terror attack.
The following section explores the various candidates and their prospects for the election.
Presidential Race: Electability and Election Prospects
Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani has enjoyed consistent polling numbers in the general election indicating his ability to contest a Democratic contender competitively in the presidential race. The view that Giuliani would be the most electable Republican in the presidential race has, however, been based on polling data taken before a series of revelations about Giuliani. These revelations, such as taxpayer-funded police protection for then-mistress Judith Nathan, and his closeness to former Police Commissioner Bernard Kerick (accused of corruption), could well threaten his chances of winning the Republican primary. Giuliani also has to deal with opposition from religious right due to his pro-choice position on abortion and his support for gay rights. However, he was able to gain endorsement of Christian evangelist, Pat Robertson. It was not immediately known if this endorsement would be enough to convince conservative “values” voters to support Giuliani. Indeed, the evidence suggested otherwise. This was because Giuliani was faced with a serious challenge in the national polls from Mike Huckabee, who benefited from a sudden surge of support from the conservative and evangelical GOP base.
Should Giuliani overcome these issues and win the Republican nomination, many of the concerns about Giuliani will undoubtedly resurface, likely with a vengeance, in the general match-up against the Democratic contender. In those match-ups, Giuliani is poised to contest the presidency competitively against the main Democratic contenders, however, there are only a few polls that show him actually beating Clinton, Obama or Edwards. But before the general election, Giuliani had to overcome likely losses in the first primary and caucus states, and then, he had to go on to win big in Florida, and then on Super Tuesday if he was to be the GOP presidential candidate.
Note: In late Jan. 2008, he came in a distant third in Florida and withdrew from the race.
Mitt Romney spent millions of his own money to get his message out in early primary and caucus states. This expenditure on his part appeared to have yielded real results because, until recently, Romney appeared poised to win Iowa and New Hampshire. However, Romney lost Iowa to poorly-funded Mike Huckabee, presumably because conservative and evangelical voters were uncomfortable with a Mormon nominee. Romney also lost in New Hampshire. It was possible that coming in second to Huckabee in Iowa, followed by a second place finish to McCain in New Hampshire, and then victory in Michigan where his father was a well-known politician, as well as Nevada, could propel him onward to Florida, and then -- Super Tuesday, in a very healthy position. But his second place finish in Florida was a setback. As he headed into that very Super Tuesday, he was faced with a competitive Huckabee and a resurgent McCain. Indeed, speculation arose about his viability following losses to McCain on that day, most especially in the case of California. In addition to these obstacles, Romney also had to resolve concerns by the evangelical GOP base about his Mormon faith, and cross the “flip flop” hurdle (his altered policy positions on abortion, for example) to get the nomination.
Should Romney ultimately win the Republican nomination, polling data shows all top tier Democrats poised to beat him handily in the general election.
Note: Following disappointing results on Super Tuesday, Romney withdrew from the GOP contest.
Mike Huckabee, hailed as the savior of the Christian Right, has done something remarkable. Despite a dismal ability to raise money, and far less of an advertising presence on the air waves, Huckabee has managed to surge from near the bottom of the GOP pool of candidates in polling, to winning in Iowa, being tied for second or third in New Hampshire, and running neck and neck with Giuliani at the national level in 2007.
Huckabee has capitalized on the uneasiness some Republican voters have had with the idea of a pro-choice and somewhat liberal nominee in the form of Giuliani, the discomfort evangelical voters have with Romney’s Mormon religion, and the disappointment felt by voters who had hoped that Fred Thompson would be their consensus candidate. Huckabee has also been helped by a genial personality that registers well in the media. Recent revelations about his call for HIV/AIDs patients to be isolated are unlikely to be a cause of consternation among the Republican base who do not regard HIV/AIDs as a priority. On the other hand, his moderate stances on immigration and his tax plan are likely to turn off anti-immigration and anti-tax factions of the GOP. Nevertheless, in December 2007, top Republican strategist, Ed Rollins, joined the Huckabee campaign, indicating that the GOP was taking Huckabee seriously as a leading contender for the nomination.
By early 2008, he managed to build serious momentum with rising poll numbers from single to double digits, despite anemic attempts to raise money. Among conservative “values” voters, most of whom form the core of the Republican Iowa caucus goers, Huckabee’s credentials as a Baptist minister took him to victory. While his subsequent performances were much weaker in the early states, he nonetheless gathered some delegates and performed well in a number of southern Super Tuesday states. He also won post-Super Tuesday states of Kansas and Louisiana. As such, he took over the second place slot after McCain. In February 2008, with McCain as the presumptive nominee, Huckabee dipped in the polls -- largely in conjunction with McCain's rise in popularity.
Should Huckabee’s meteoric rise in late 2007 resurface in the spring of 2008 and propel him to the top of the Republican ticket, he would have challenging races against all of the top tier Democratic contenders , according to polling data of head-to-head match ups.
Note: By March 2008, Huckabee withdrew from the race.
Touted as “Reaganesque,” Fred Thompson was hailed as the consensus candidate of the GOP field before he entered the race and in the immediate aftermath. Among voters unhappy with the candidates deemed to be unreliably or insufficiently conservative, Thompson appeared to be a viable option in mid-2007. The problem for Thompson was that once he entered the race and people were able to see him in action and hear him speak, the less Reagan-like he appeared in reality, despite his credentials as a media-friendly and charming actor capable of persuasive rhetoric. Indeed, media reports emerged about his laziness while he was in the Senate – a trait that was likely to emerge with negative effects on the campaign trail, as well as cases in which he quite literally bored his audience to sleep. Registering paltry poll ratings in New Hampshire -- barely a sole percentage point in one poll, Thompson decided in December 2007 to abandon that state and concentrate his efforts on realizing a decent performance in Iowa where he hopes to finish third to Huckabee and Romney. His campaign was hoping that a strong, albeit non-winning performance there would act as a springboard onto later states, such as South Carolina. However, in that southern state, he turned in a disappointing third place finish.
Should Thompson, by some miracle, actually win the Republican nomination, he would likely win his own state of Tennessee and a handful of other southern states in the general election, while being trounced by any of the top Democrats.
Note: Such a prospect came to an end in January 2008 when he dropped out of the race following his poor performance in South Carolina.
John McCain is widely regarded as a war hero from the Vietnam era, a Bush stalwart on the Iraq war, and he also has consistently held a pro-life position. However, McCain was not favored among all factions of the Republican base in 2007. His moderate views on immigration, his willingness to fight the Bush administration on torture, his cooperative stance with Democrats in opposing the Bush tax cuts and advancing progress on global warming, may have resulted in laudatory praise from Democrats and Independents, but not from those within his own party who are not quite as entranced by his maverick tendencies. Consequently, McCain had a great deal of trouble raising both his poll numbers and campaign funds in 2007. But McCain's improved prospects resided on the basis of his noteworthy victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, largely due to his being viewed as the most electable Republican. Together, these factors coalesced to give him a much-needed boost to the top of the GOP pack by January 2008, which propelled to strong victories on Super Tuesday and throughout February. As such, McCain was headed toward clinching the Republican nomination.
Interestingly, McCain fares better than any other Republican in head to head match ups against the leading Democrats in the general election. The problem is that he would actually have to win the Republican nomination to contest the general election – a prospect that appeared unlikely in mid-2007, but one that was far more promising in early 2008. Indeed, in January 2008, his poll numbers were on an upward trend, and after Super Tuesday in February 2008, he was the Republican frontrunner. Indeed, by March 2008, he clinched the position as the presumptive GOP nominee and was maintaining a strong position against the remaining Democrats in head to head match ups ahead of the 2008 presidential race. McCain undoubtedly presents the greatest challenge to the Democrats and could well win in the general election, according to earlier polling data.
Ron Paul’s populist and libertarian stance has earned him something of a cult following and a decent amount of campaign cash. In fact, in December 2007, Paul's campaign made headlines after raising $6 million in a 24-hour fundraising blitz. Paul also managed to secure second place in Nevada. That said, it is extraordinarily unlikely that he would win either the Republican nomination or the White House.
Tom Tancredo’s anti-immigration stance and Duncan Hunter’s hawkish and pro-war platform have their own cadres of supporters. However, neither has managed to raise either much money or their poll numbers. Both are long shots for the nomination and the probability that either could win the White House is infinitesimal. Perhaps acknowledging this reality, Tancredo exited the race in December 2007 and Hunter followed suit in January 2008.
There has been much stated above about the various Democratic advantages in late 2007, ahead of the first caucuses and primaries of the 2008 election season. At issue for Democratic candidates has been the issue of electability.
Some media personalities and political strategists have argued that Hillary Clinton is such a polarizing figure that she would have the biggest challenge in the general election, in comparison with the other top tier Dem candidates, Obama and Edwards. There is some truth to that argument. According to polling data by Rasmussen, Clinton would have to survive competitive races against moderate candidates like Giuliani and McCain in key states such as Florida and Ohio. She would also have to contend with McCain who, as in early 2008, was polling ahead of her in head to head national and state-based match ups.
It should be noted that while Zogby’s Interactive Poll in late 2007 and Rasmussen in early 2008 have shown Clinton losing to some of the top GOP contenders in the general election, CNN in early 2008 has showed her running strongly ahead of most of the GOP field. Against McCain, the likely GOP nominee as of January 2008, Rasmussen showed both Clinton and Obama being beaten in the general election. By March 2008, however, Clinton was running far more competitively against him. Hence, on balance, one could well conclude that Clinton is as electable -- or an unelectable -- as any of the other top tier Democratic contenders in a general election.
Generally, Clinton must contend with the reality of her high unfavorability ratings -- largely due to the Republican base's vitriolic dislike of her. As of early 2008, though, there was some movement and her favorability/unfavorability rating was about even -- 49/50 percent, according to Rasmussen.
The “polarizing” meme regarding Clinton is somewhat mitigated by a New York Times/CBS News poll in December 2007, which shows that Clinton has the highest favorability rating of all Democratic contenders. Favorability aside, almost every national poll has shown her leading the pack of Democrats in the quest for the nomination. As such, regardless of the electability question in the general election, Clinton commands strong support, and is regarded positively, among much of the national Democratic base.
Earlier, in mid-2007, there was some discussion of Clinton possibly sweeping all the states in the primary/caucus elections. She had healthy advantages ahead of Edwards and Obama in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, not to mention new entrants into the early primary season, Nevada and Michigan. Then, she was expected to win big in Florida and charge onward to Super Tuesday – an effective coronation of sorts. (It should be noted that neither Michigan nor Florida were expected to be more than symbolic races since the DNC stripped the states of their delegates due to the fact that they changed their primary dates in violation of the rules.)
By late 2007, polling data showed her in a three-way tie with Obama and Edwards in Iowa, even trailing Obama in some polls. She eventually lost this race to Obama. As analysts discussed her loss in Iowa, they noted that she had a firewall in the form of New Hampshire where she was strongly ahead of all the other candidates. But that advantage began to dissipate as well, with new polling data showing the race in New Hampshire moving in favor of Obama. Even in South Carolina, her lead over Obama was dissipated. In short, Clinton was in trouble. But, her subsequent upset win in New Hampshire confused political pundits and counfounded the analysts. Then, she went onto to win the expectations game by turning in a first place finish in Nevada as well.
Clinton's winning streak ran out in South Carolina where Obama garnered a landslide victory, however, she nonetheless headed into the Super Tuesday states with an assumed advantage. But that advantage eroded as Obama began to pick up strong support across the country in the days ahead of the February contests. On Super Tuesday, Clinton was able to hold steady in a number of key states, but Obama's strong performance mitigated any pronouncements that she was the ultimate winner. She was also halted by strong wins by Obama in post-Super Tuesday states. Such a scenario was quite distanced from the anticipated quasi-coronation months prior.
Clinton regained momentum with victories in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island in March 2008, but she remained at a disadvantage against Obama in the delegate count. An important victory in Pennsylvania in April 2008 appeared to move things in her direction for a short period, with national polls showing her surging into an ascendant position over Obama. However, Obama stemmed the Clinton tide with a virtual tie in Indiana and a landslide victory in North Carolina. Not even blowout victories in West Virginia and Kentucky in May 2008 were helping Clinton who was now trailing significantly in national polls against Obama, and also notably behind in terms of the delegate count .
Clinton performed strongly at the close of the primary season with wins in Puerto Rico and South Dakota, although she lost Oregon and Montana. She was also polling strongly against Republican McCain in general election match ups. These attributes helped her advance her popular vote count and her electability argument, but did not erase Obama's delegate lead. As such, she was poised to exit the race in early June 2008.
Had Clinton won the Democratic presidential nomination, polling data and electoral college analysis indicated that she had a very strong chance of ultimately winning the White House, and making history as the first female president of the United States. That end was not realized, however, and she was expected to exit the race in June 2008.
Barack Obama’s election performance is implicated in Clinton’s narrative just above. In mid-2007, Obama enjoyed almost rock-star status and media adulation about his freshness on the political scene. As such, he vaulted over the more seasoned politician, John Edwards, into second place and stayed there in most polls – both in terms of early primary and caucus states, and at the national level.
The problem for Obama was that even with his second place rank, he registered polling numbers significantly below those of Clinton. Even his debate performances in the early going were regarded as less impressive than Clinton’s, who was frequently touted as the debate winner. But by October 2007, the scenario changed. Some observers attributed the shift to the opening granted by an inelegant answer Clinton gave on illegal immigrants during one debate; others suggested that her vote on the Kyle-Lieberman bill on Iran reminded the Democratic base of her controversial vote on Iraq back in 2002, effectively casting doubt in their minds once again. Whatever the rationale, the result was manifest in declining poll numbers for Clinton and rising poll numbers for Obama in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
While Obama still remained behind Clinton in national polls in late 2007, he went on to win Iowa in early 2008, finished a close second in New Hampshire and Nevada (where he actually won more delegates than Clinton), and won a landslide victory in South Carolina. Some national polls also showed him on the rise at the national level by early 2008. Regardless of this encouraging performance, as well as key endorsements from the leading Democratic figures such as John Kerry, Edward Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy, Obama was still faced with the daunting prospect of large Super Tuesday states where Clinton was expected to do very well. Momentum was on his side, though, and he was able to erode significant leads held by Clinton, win a number of states and run even in accumulating delegates, ultimately ending in a tie on Super Tuesday.
Obama was additionally boosted by more than 11 consecutive victories in the month of February -- including the Potomac primaries -- as well as the plurality of pledged delegates. In March, his winning streak came to an end when Clinton beat him in three states, including all-important Ohio and the big state of Texas. A notable loss to Clinton in Pennsylvania in April 2008 appeared to move things in Clinton's direction for a short period, with national polls showing her surging into an ascendant position over Obama.
Obama stemmed the Clinton tide with a virtual tie in Indiana and a landslide victory in North Carolina. Not even blowout victories in West Virginia and Kentucky in May 2008 were helping Clinton who was now trailing significantly in national polls against Obama, and also notably behind in terms of the delegate count. Indeed, Obama on May 20, 2008 captured the abosolute majority of delegates -- a milestone that marked a shift clearly toward the nomination. Defeats in Puerto Rico and South Dakota, as well as victories in Oregon and Montana, did little to change the reality that Obama was systematically moving toward the requisite number of delegates needed to climch the nomination.
On June 3, 2008, Obama crossed the delegate thereshold and captured the Democratic nomination. Thanks to competitive polling numbers against the GOP field in the general election, Obama was well positioned to win the White House, and make history as the first African-American president of the United States. Like Clinton, his biggest competition in a general election would come from McCain on the GOP side of the partisan divide.
John Edwards stands in a difficult and somewhat contradictory position – he will have to transcend significant obstacles to become the Democratic nominee, yet paradoxically, if he becomes the nominee, he has the best chance among Democratic candidates of winning the general election. This is because Edwards’ appeal is not limited to the left-leaning Democratic base. Despite his populist message, Edwards appears able to attract moderates and centrists to his fold.
In national polls measuring support among Democratic primary and caucus voters, Edwards has consistently ranked third – the bottom of the top tier of Democratic candidates. However, he has never dropped out of that top tier over the course of 2007. In polls measuring support in specific early primary and caucus states, he was shown to be in something of a dead heat against Clinton and Obama in Iowa specifically. Ultimately, he came in a disappointing second in that state, finished a distant third in New Hampshire and an even more distant third in Nevada. He also turned in a third place finish in South Carolina.
Had Edwards won in Iowa and done better in New Hampshire or Nevada, he would have enough a foundation of victory – and possible momentum -- going into South Carolina to stay in the race until Super Tuesday. But at that point, it would be quite difficult – albeit not impossible – for Edwards to ultimately pull off victory and become the Democratic nominee, given Clinton’s polling dominance in some of the big states voting on Super Tuesday. Because he did not win Iowa or perform well in the following states, it was difficult to see how he would be able to remain a viable candidate for the duration of the primary process.
That said, if Edwards pulls an upset and becomes the Democratic nominee, polling data shows that he would could beat the field of Republicans in the general election, according to most polls.
Note: John Edwards withdrew from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in late January 2008.
As noted above, Joseph Biden, Christopher Dodd and Bill Richardson all possess impressive resumes. Media-friendly Biden and Richardson have also both managed to see some improvement in their polling numbers, albeit not enough to break them out of the second tier of candidates. None of the three were expected to win the nomination and after the Iowa caucases, Dodd and Biden withdrew from the race, and Richardson withdrew after New Hampshire. But the second tier candidates may well be positioning themselves for roles in a future Democratic administration. Dodd’s understanding of policy would make him a natural in the role of cabinet secretary, Biden’s command of foreign affairs has resulted in several rumblings about him being selected as Secretary of State, and Richardson’s results-oriented resume has caused speculation that he would be a natural Vice Presidential pick for the Democrat ultimately winning the nomination.
At the bottom of the Democratic pool, Kucinich and Gravel are considered fringe candidates and will not win the nomination. Kucinich withdrew from the race for the Democratic nomination on January 24, 2008 and said that he was not issuing an endorsement.
Click on the following links to get to other sections of the Special Election Report --
1. The Road to the White House: Landscape and Issues
2. Presidential Race: Presidential Primaries
3. Presidential Race: General Election
4. Congressional Elections: The Senate
5. Congressional Elections: The House of Representatives
6. Governors Races