The early morning line on the biggest of the open seats

Every two years, both major political parties fight hardest over open Senate and House seats. These seats tend to change hands between the parties a lot more often than incumbent Senate and House members are defeated running for re—election.  In 2008, we will have a real rarity — an open presidential seat.

Since 1928, there have been 19 presidential elections. In all but one of them, one of the two candidates in the race was either a sitting President running for re—election or a sitting vice president running for the White House. Only in 1952, when General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Republican nominee against Democratic Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, has there been a race similar to the prospective 2008 contest.

There are advantages to incumbency for presidents, but not as much as for Congressmen and Senators. Of the 14 presidents who ran for re—election in the past 72 years, 10 won, and only four lost (Hoover: 1932, Ford: 1976, Carter: 1980, and Bush: 1992). This winning percentage of 71% is more than 20% lower than the winning percentage for House incumbents (98% in the 2004 cycle, and consistently above 95% in recent election years, except for 1994).

Senate incumbents also have won a high percentage of the time in recent cycles (only Tom Daschle was defeated in 2004), though having to run statewide, they do not enjoy the advantage of gerrymandered districts designed to protect incumbents, as many House member now do. In 2000, an unusually high number of incumbent Senators were defeated, including Chuck Robb, Slade Gordon, Spencer Abraham, John Ashcroft, William Roth, and Rob Gramms; this sort of turnover also occurred in 1980 and 1986.

Four sitting vice presidents have run for president since 1932.  Three of the four lost (Nixon: 1960, Humphrey: 1968, and Gore: 2000). Only the first President Bush in 1988 successfully moved up.  Of course, each of the three defeated vice presidents lost in very very close presidential races. 

The pattern in these prior elections is of interest, since one of the names being prominently tossed around as a potential Presidential contender is newly appointed Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. This week, an internet rumor circulated suggesting that Vice President Cheney would resign for health reasons sometime in the next year or two, and that President Bush would appoint Rice as his successor. Presumably, this would enable Rice to become the Republicans' heir apparent as the nominee in 2008. In fact, since 1928, no vice president who has sought the Presidential nomination of his party has been denied it.  This has even carried over to former vice presidents who have sought the Presidential nod years after they left office:  Nixon in 1968, Mondale in 1984.  With draft Rice websites starting up, a serious debate about her chances in 2008 is already underway.

Secretary Rice has never run for elective office, and clearly, her candidacy would be groundbreaking in several ways: she is African American, she is a woman, and she has never been married (James Buchanan in 1856 is America's only elected bachelor President).  She would be the first major party Presidential candidate since Eisenhower not to have held prior elective office.  Of course, Ike won decisively his first time up, and by an even more decisive margin when he ran for re—election in 1956. Most importantly, Rice has not yet given any signal whatsoever that she is entertaining the notion of running in 2008 or thereafter.

Political writer Dick Morris has argued that Rice is one of only two potential Republican candidates who could beat Hillary Clinton, were Clinton to win the Democratic nomination in 2008.  The other, he says, is Rudy Giuliani.  Morris argues that Giuliani would find it very difficult to be nominated by the Republicans due to his liberal social views, so given his loathing for Hillary, he is hyping the Rice effort as the Republicans' best hope in 2008.

Clinton, herself, would be a groundbreaking pick for the Democrats. In addition to being a woman, she is a former First Lady. The possibility of two women running against each other would make 2008 a unique election in our history. 

Dick Morris is a very smart and entertaining personality. But he has been wrong at least as often as he has been right with his political forecasts in recent years.  I agree with him that Hillary Clinton would be a formidable candidate were she nominated in 2008. She is smart, disciplined, and calculating. She does not make many mistakes, and rarely repeats one.  But I do not agree with Morris, that her nomination is a certainty.

Clinton is behaving as if the nomination in 2008 is already secure, and she has begun a systematic tack towards the political center — on abortion, Iraq, and defense —  to make her a more appealing national candidate in the general election in 2008. But the world of presidential election campaigns and their financing has changed dramatically since Bill Clinton ran in 1992 and 1996. While Hillary Clinton could count on a strong base of fundraising support, if she were to make the Democratic Party's left a bit uncomfortable between now and 2008, there is the possibility that candidates could emerge running to her left in the primaries. And the success of the internet fundraising of both Howard Dean and John Kerry in 2004 suggests that such campaigns could be very well—funded as well.  While Hillary has poise, she does not have Bill's charisma as a candidate, and is often dull on the stump. She seems a good bit more relaxed and likable than she did a decade ago, but she still has a considerable way to go to be judged warm and appealing.

Bill Clinton's pick for DNC Chairman, Terry McAuliffe, was good at fundraising, and improving the party's technology for fundraising. But on his watch the Democrats lost 6 Senate seats (and control of the body), 9 House seats, and the recent Presidential election. The election of Howard Dean, certainly not a Clinton acolyte, to the DNC chair, may encourage other candidates to take Hillary on, including Dean himself.  Already, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, Delaware's forever Senator Joe Biden, 2004 Presidential nominee John Kerry, 2004 VP nominee John Edwards, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, and a few Governors — Virginia's Mark Warner, and Tennessee's Phil Bredesen — have all felt the wand of the 'great mentioner.'  Kerry, Edwards, Dean, and Feingold would clearly run to Hillary's left if they were candidates. 

The Hillary spin machine is turning up the volume early. We are three years from the 2008 Iowa caucus, but due to the many political blogs and political shows on cable TV, we now have not only a 24 hour non—stop news cycle, but a non—stop Presidential campaign that begins as soon as the last one has been decided.  There have been recent polls released that show Hillary's popularity in New York State is up considerably since 2000. In 2006 she will be running as an incumbent. New York's senior Senator, Chuck Schumer, was just re—elected with over 70% of the vote. Even if Hillary faces only token opposition in her Senate race in 2006, she will not likely match Schumer's percentage. This is also New York State, after all, where Kerry won by 18% in November, so incumbent Democratic Senators should do well.   Morris say that only Giuliani could give Hillary a real race for the Senate in 2006, and if he took her down, probably  ending her political ambitions for 2008, this might be his best chance to impress the party faithful for his own 2008 run and give them a reason to overlook his liberal social views. But I think Hillary would be the favorite to win against Rudy for the Senate race in 2006, and so Giuliani won't risk it.
Giuliani is at the moment well ahead in early trial runs among Republicans for 2008,and draws very enthusiastic crowds on the road. And he is nothing if not ambitious. Giuliani is making so much money with his consulting firm that he might have accumulated enough to devote full time to seeking the nomination, beginning next year.  When war and peace and the fear of terrorist attacks are paramount, a candidate who is viewed as a strong leader wins points, even if he has only been elected as Mayor of New York City, and never to national office. Giuliani's national identification with 9/11 is powerful, and if this  still resonates in 2008, he has a chance to be nominated, I think, despite his liberal social views.  Rudy also has three years to soften some of his positions that make many socially conservative Republicans uncomfortable. 

These conditions — the pre—eminence of war and peace and terrorism as political issues — would also serve Rice well, if she winds up as a candidate. Her visibility as Secretary of State is much higher than it was as National Security Advisor. Her first trip to Europe as Secretary of State was a great success, as European leaders were virtually eating out of her hand.  Today, she is back in Europe. Rice is a smart, poised, confident individual, and appears unflappable, much like President Bush.  When supposedly liberal tolerant Europeans contemplate an America with a black woman as Secretary of State, they must realize how far they still have to go to achieve anything approaching the much more diverse and meritocratic society that we now have in the United States.

Rice's disadvantage, should she decide to run, is that being Secretary of State is a serious fulltime job, not like being vice president (Cheney's role and influence in the job is very unusual), or say, a US Senator. When Kerry, Edwards, and Lieberman took effective leave of their jobs to run for President in 2004, the nation survived.  Few noticed when Orrin Hatch missed some Senate votes to run for his Party's nomination in 2000. When Gore ran in 2000, the country got along without him in the vice president's office.  Being Secretary of State provides great national visibility, but no time to shake hands in Iowa or New Hampshire. It is in this sense, that a Cheney—Rice shift, were it to occur, might be most helpful to Rice's chances in 2008. 

There is another major potential Republican candidate, whom Morris discounts. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist has term limited himself and will not run for re—election in 2006. This gives him two years to run for president, without any government job anchor tied to him. Senate Majority Leader is different than the other 99 Senate jobs (Senate Minority Leader Leader excepted), in that it requires the Senator to stay in Washington and work to get legislation passed. Bob Dole not only gave up his Senate Majority Leader role to run for President in 1996, but his Senate seat itself.

Frist is the safe choice for the Republicans. He is from the South, where the GOP is now is very dominant. He is a physician, and an intelligent soft—spoken man who would not draw quite the same kind of scorn that President Bush has among the elite press. He is also reassuring to the social issue conservatives, while not appearing to be hard—edged to others. Rice might be fine with social conservatives as well,  but would have to start enunciating positions to win this large Republican base over. Frist could win many of the delegates he needs to be nominated by sweeping the Southern primaries, much as Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush did. 

Senators have a very poor record getting elected president (JFK was the last sitting Senator elected in 1960). But ex—Senators, especially those whose careers have not been entirely political (like Frist's) may not fit that pattern.  The biggest rap on Frist is that he is a dull speaker and won't excite anybody. But he has a few years to turn it up, and if the Democrats are likely to nominate a very "hot" media candidate, like Hillary Clinton, then selection of Frist, a much "cooler" candidate, might appear safer for many voters.

Two dark horse candidates could emerge. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has a solid record as a businessman, as Governor of a very blue state, and as organizer of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He could probably self fund part of his campaign.  Virginia Senator George Allen was an accomplished Governor and did a terrific job for the GOP increasing the size of their Senate majority, as Chairman of the Republicans' Senate Campaign Committee from 2002 to 2004. Both Romney and Allen are young enough to pass on 2008, and run another time.

Finally, there is Arizona Senator John McCain. McCain will be 72 in 2008, and he has alienated many in his party by appearing to be friendly with the hated media, and with many of his Democratic colleagues. He has also had several bouts of skin cancer. McCain is still quite popular with the media , and with political  independents , and some conservative Democrats.  Hillary chose well, by visiting Iraq with McCain this week. But I think he is a long—shot, though like Kerry, and perhaps even Al Gore, he might still have the bug.

It is very early. And this is nothing but a very early morning line. But I believe Bill Frist and Hillary Clinton are the favorites at this point, (Frist is only a slight favorite over Giuliani) and in a general election face—off between the two, I think Frist would be favored over Hillary if the political climate of the country is much as it is now in three years. And of course, I have three years to change my mind about all of this.