Seven Months Out: The State of the Races

It is only July 5th, and Election Day, 2008 is 16 months away, but with the front loading of the primaries next year, particularly the many large states voting on February 5th, it is a reasonable assumption that both major party candidates will be known by the end of that day, seven months from now. 

Will There Be A Third Party Candidate?

It is also possible that we will know on February 5th whether Michael Bloomberg will enter the race. The conjecture is that Bloomberg will only run if both parties are likely to nominate candidates tied to their more passionate bases, and away from the center, where Bloomberg would then think he has an opening. That is very unlikely, to occur, I think. When you are 65, worth over $5 billion, and are term limited, something needs to motivate you. But running for President as a third party candidate is a fool's mission, especially when you are a stultifyingly boring public speaker, who inspires almost nobody.

Bloomberg cannot win, though he could tip the race one way or the other, as Ralph Nader did in 2000. Whatever the polls show today for Bloomberg's support level (most below 10%), expect this number to drop by Election Day, were he to run. Would a rational, successful businessman waste a year of his life and an enormous sum to be embarrassed in this way, and run so poorly? I doubt it. 

I suspect some envy on his part that Rudy Giuliani, his predecessor as New York City Mayor, has a real shot at the nomination of his party, and in head to head races is very competitive with the leading Democrats. But it was Giuliani, not Bloomberg, who was Mayor when New York City's murder rate dropped by nearly 75% and it was Rudy who was Mayor on 9/11. Bloomberg has been a decent caretaker of a city whose health had already vastly improved under Giuliani. The caretaker saga is not a story that will excite very many people.

The Republican Race

The major development in the Republican race in the past two months has  been the rise of former Senator Fred Thompson.  As predicted, some of his support appears to have come at the expense of former Governor  Mitt Romney, whose national poll ratings have tailed off since the Thompson boomlet began.  The lion's share of Thompson's support appears to have come from the none of the above category, a fairly large share of the Republican electorate surveyed, and presumably a group with a large number of conservative Republican voters (what  Samuel Beckett might call the "Waiting for Gingrich" voters). 

Whether Thompson will hold this group when his candidacy becomes real, and not just speculation, is unclear. Like all the major Republicans in the field, Thompson has been trying to attach the legacy of Ronald Reagan to his candidacy (in his case soon-to-be candidacy). And while all of the candidates can make a reasonable case in this regard, it is worth noting that Ronald  Reagan left office at a time when  about a third of the current voting population had not yet reached age 18.  How strong the Reagan legacy burns in these voters is unclear.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has held the national poll lead in all but the Rasmussen survey for a few months (in that one Thompson now has a slight lead of 3%), and runs the strongest against all the leading Democratic candidates  in head to head surveys.   Rudy also raised the most money in the GOP field in the second quarter, and has the most cash on hand. The Rudy skeptics, such as Charles Cook, look more and more out of touch, as Rudy hangs in there month after month,  despite constant media bashing by the New York Times, anxious to eliminate the GOP candidate who may have the greatest crossover appeal in a national election.  Now that Thompson looks like a more serious contender for the nomination, the Times wasted no time doing a hit piece on the lobbying activities of his sons.

The Times has become in effect a daily talking points memo of the DNC, in both news stories and opinion pages, so none of this is surprising. The fact that nothing has been directed at John McCain recently, may indicate that the Times is not concerned about his winning the nomination (or  that Times writers are intimidated by a genuine war hero, a class of human being largely unknown to its legions of political writers).

Mitt Romney, who raised the most money in the first quarter and has spent a good bit of it on media buys in Iowa and New Hampshire, now holds the lead in both states, the first two contests for the nomination, despite slipping to 4th place in national surveys. Romney is clearly betting that wins in both states will give him a lot of free national media exposure before the  collection of primaries on February 5th and vault him into contention in those big state races.

Romney, while down nationally, should not be counted out.  If Thompson fades a bit once he gets into the race (the theory that a candidate is strongest just before his official entrance), some of his support might flow back to Romney.  So far, the national media seems far more disturbed by the prospect of a Mormon winning the White House, than an African American, a woman, or even an Italian American.  Only certain kinds of bigotry are allowed these days among political reporters (that directed against Christian evangelicals and Mormons, for the most part).

As for John McCain, he is down to $2 million cash on hand, and is laying off staff. For the presumptive favorite for the nomination six months ago, this looks like a sad and quick collapse of his candidacy. McCain, of course, has faced tougher tests than this before and survived. But it is hard to be optimistic about his chances. He is not the media darling this time around , as he was in 2000 when he was running against  George Bush, and welcomed the national press to the open bar on the Straight Talk Express.  Some political opponents of McCain are speaking well of him at the moment, perhaps another sign that his candidacy is fading, but that he has earned substantial respect for his long career of public service.

With Romney running well in Iowa and New Hampshire, his rivals for the nomination have taken the tack of largely discounting both races. Giuliani and McCain are skipping the Ames straw poll this summer, and may not compete that hard in the Iowa caucuses next January. New Hampshire is characterized by the rival campaigns as home state (or neighboring state) turf for Romney, so of course he should do well there.

The race remains wide open. I think Giuliani is still the favorite. Given the prospect of another ugly election cycle for the GOP next year, a candidate who runs well nationally and has appeal to moderates and independents may be the pragmatic choice.  Thompson is probably the second most likely nominee, though there is no way at this point to know if his candidacy will have any legs. Romney has a shot because in the past, any candidate in either party who won both of the first two contests, got a big boost for the later races (e.g. John Kerry in 2004, Jimmy Carter in 1976).  Just winning Iowa, however, will likely not be enough to boost any candidate to the nomination. In fact, it is possible the GOP race may not be decided on February 5th,with a split decision in that day's major races. 

The Democratic Race

The Democratic race has stabilized the last few months. Senator Hillary Clinton has opened up a lead in the national polls of 10% or more, and is ahead in all the state polls except in Iowa.  Senator Barack Obama has raised more money than Clinton and from a much larger donor base in each of the last two quarters. The former First Lady also suffers from a charisma deficit out on the stump, as compared to Obama. 

In Iowa, the first contest, the race is complicated by the fact that former Senator  John Edwards, who has been fading in the national polls, has been all but living in Iowa since his defeat in the 2004 Vice Presidential race and clings to a very narrow lead
in the state. That will probably change in the next series of polls from Iowa, now that former President Bill Clinton has been recruited to inject some life into the Clinton campaign in the state.

The Clinton campaign is very much a machine, designed to mow down opponents. Obama's money haul and freshness as a candidate make him a serious threat for the nomination. Obama needs to pull an upset in Iowa to catch fire, I think. Since the state's Democratic caucus participants tend to be quite liberal in their politics, Obama has a shot at winning, especially given the odd way that caucus results are tallied (with some candidates eliminated and their voters getting to select a second choice)). The real damage to Clinton would be if Obama won Iowa  and Edwards finished second.  A third place defeat for Clinton would be hard to spin away, and the media, who are not by and large in love with her, would trumpet Iowa as a major blow to her candidacy. Obama would be all over the newsweeklies, talks shows and get millions in free positive publicity. 

I think Edwards will fade in Iowa , as he has nationally (there in not much propping up his candidacy there other than time spent in Iowa at this point).

But an Obama win over Hillary in Iowa, even if she finishes second there, would be damaging for her projection of the "inevitability" of her eventual triumph.

The soft underbelly to the Clinton campaign is the fact  that national polls show her with greater negatives than positives. She has, I think, after 15 years of national exposure, little ability to change these impressions . Obama has much higher favorable to unfavorable ratings.  Democrats obsessed with winning the White House in  2008, may fear that her high negatives and woodenness as a candidate might result in her blowing what they believe is their near-certain victory next year.  Add to that, a strong sense of anger and betrayal among the energized left wing base of the party over her support for the Iraq war, and the search for an alternative candidate, once the real voting starts, is a real risk to her chances. For the Democratic left, their hearts are with Dennis Kucinich, which gives you some idea of their center of gravity.

I believe that Clinton is a slight favorite for the nomination at this point, but Obama has a near equal  chance  of getting nominated, particularly if he wins Iowa.  I think Hillary's strategy will be to steamroller her opponents in Iowa, particularly Obama, with the support of former Governor Tom Vilsack, Bill Clinton, and saturation advertising and facetime with the Iowa electorate.  If she wins Iowa, particularly if the win is clearcut,  she is probably unbeatable for the nomination.  For the Democrats, Iowa will likely be decisive. At the moment, Hillary runs slightly better against the leading GOP candidates than Obama in national head to head surveys. Her campaign will undoubtedly use this as evidence that despite her high negatives,  Obama may be too much of a wild card as a  candidate, and may not be sellable nationally  (at least not next year).

New Entrants?

I do not see any evidence that Al Gore wants to roll up his money-making machine and enter the race as a  long-shot for the nomination. On the GOP side, Newt Gingrich could enter the race in the fall, especially if the Thompson wave is short-lived. If Newt enters the race he is far from a sure thing  for the nomination,  and I think he has no chance of winning a general election.

Richard Baehr is chief politival correspondent of American Thinker.