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Notes on the State of Politics II

A Commentary by Larry J. Sabato

This week, the Crystal Ball publishes another installment in our intermittent series of observations on the 2008 campaign and the politics of the day. We offer these musings as a supplement to our usual essays focusing on one subject, which will still appear regularly. Jefferson aficionados will find the title familiar, and they know he penned just one book in his lifetime, Notes on the State of Virginia. As a salute to the man from Monticello, here are a few more modern tidbits, including some thoughts on the 2008 contest to pick Jefferson's White House successor.

Mike Huckabee, Media Favorite

Partisan critics of the news media insist that the media are fatally biased in one direction or the other, and certainly there are many examples of bias from all ideological directions. Yet the critique is usually overdone. For example, the "liberal Democratic media" never hesitate to embrace a certain type of Republican--the unorthodox, underdog GOP candidate who is friendly and accessible to reporters. Every part of the description is important. Journalists like to see the candidate tilting at a few windmills; they want to know he's fighting against the odds; and most of all, they want to find a smiling, welcoming politician that gives them almost unlimited face time that is not filtered by campaign staffers. Who fit that description in 2000? John McCain, of course. As soon as McCain got off the Straight Talk Express bus and became a cloistered frontrunner in 2006, the press became much tougher in its coverage. Now comes Mike Huckabee, the 2008 model of McCain 2000. This former Arkansas Governor began as a long-shot, remains under-funded, violates GOP orthodoxy on taxes (he's raised a bunch) and employs class-warfare rhetoric against "the rich" and "big business" (not what one normally hears from Republican candidates), and most of all, chats up every available journalist with homespun humor aplenty. The consequence has been a series of puff pieces that can make one blush. No doubt, Huckabee would produce a fascinating fall campaign, were he the nominee, and he is probably going to get a decent start by doing reasonably well in the low-turnout Iowa caucuses. However, what the press doesn't stress to Republicans are Huckabee's drawbacks: virtually no foreign policy experience--he'll make Hillary Clinton's time as first lady look like the equivalent of serving as secretary of state; alienation of the anti-tax wing of the GOP (opposition to taxes is one of the few issues that unites Republicans these days), and his status as a Baptist minister and Southern state chief executive with strong evangelical support (reminiscent of George W. Bush in a year when even Republicans want somebody very different). Oh well, that's not really the press's role. His opponents will have to take up where the mainstream media leave off.

Old Rules versus New Rules

Under the old rules of the presidential selection game, it might be possible to pick the GOP nominee at this point. His name? Mitt Romney. Despite Huckabee's surge in Iowa, Romney still leads in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and at least with his current issue stands, he is well positioned to appeal to the basic GOP constituency groups (the anti-tax wing, the social conservatives, the foreign policy hawks, etc.); he is virtually scandal-free, by all known accounts; and he has more than enough money to remain competitive through February 5th.

His main opponent, Rudy Giuliani, does not have an undisputed lead anywhere, and will be lucky to finish in the money in more than one or two of the early contests. Rudy may even have to wait until Florida on January 29 to have a chance of winning a contest--by which time a series of defeats, under the time-honored rules of the game, will have crippled him and collapsed his margins in the big states of February 5 (CA, IL, NJ, NY, etc.)

Let's leave aside for the moment the very real chance that the Iowa and New Hampshire numbers could fluctuate and that other candidates could surprise and do well in one or more early state match-ups. Romney has two other problems that could transform the rules to his detriment. He seems incapable, so far, of making much progress in the national surveys and is well down the list of contenders, both among GOP voters generally and in head-to-head contests with the leading Democrats. And he continues to be dogged by opposition--however unfair and bigoted--to Mormonism. Of the two problems, the first is more significant. Quite literally, the only factor keeping the Republicans afloat for November 2008 at the moment is intense opposition to Hillary Clinton. Her very name evokes emotional waves of fear and dread wherever Republicans gather. Rudy is holding his own against Hillary in most surveys, while the polls almost consistently show Clinton easily defeating Romney. (McCain does well against Clinton, too, but he has a unique set of difficulties that will very probably keep him from securing the party nomination, though he might do well in New Hampshire.) As long as Hillary is winning the Democratic nomination in January--and as long as Romney's early victories do not propel him into a tie or better with Clinton in the polls--then Giuliani may be able to sustain his lead in the big-state primaries beginning January 29.

If Romney prevails, the old rules will have been proven valid anew. Should Giuliani (or anyone else) win the GOP nod, the rules will have to be re-written. Overcoming the rules is not akin to climbing Mount Everest, by the way. Let's keep in mind that the "modern" rules of presidential politics have only been around since 1972--when the primaries became king and the old reign of party bosses was swept away. We are basing the "rules" on a very small number of contests. Once you eliminate incumbent presidents' re-nominations in years when they were virtually unopposed, you have only fourteen examples, counting the parties separately, from 1972 to 2004. This is too small an "N", as any statistician will tell you, on which to base an iron rule of politics.

President vs. Congress--The Race to the Bottom

It will surprise many political observers to learn that, as unpopular as President Bush is, the Democratically-controlled Congress is even more unpopular. A rough calculation by the Crystal Ball of the two dozen most recent national nonpartisan surveys shows the President's job approval to be 33 percent--one of the worst averages recorded in the entire age of polling (1936 to the present) for any Chief Executive. It isn't just that 90 percent or more of Democrats are unhappy with him, it's that about 60 percent of Independents and over a quarter of Republicans rate him poorly. So surely, the Democratic Congress is benefiting, right? Think again. In record time, the Democrats have managed to sink, on average, into the low-to-mid twenties. Occasionally, surveys have registered their approval level in the teens.

The reason is obvious: the Congress has been unable to do what they were arguably elected to do, end the Iraq War, so the controlling party has lost much of its own base as well as the swing Independents, who voted for them in November 2006 primarily because of the war. This is great news for the Republicans, right? Think again, again. While the GOP will need every bit of electoral luck to hold the Presidency, the Democrats are on track to add seats in both the House and the Senate in 2008. How could this be? First, Americans are executive-oriented. We tend to credit or blame presidents, governors, and mayors for most all developments, ignoring the legislatures and city councils. Bush is reaping the whirlwind for Iraq, Katrina, the economy, high gas prices, etc. Second, individual senators and congressmen are benefiting from the "collective nature" of Congress. The bad old legislature just can't get its act together, most of us say, but thank goodness for our particular representatives; they are doing just fine. If only the whole Congress were like them! (In general, Congress is like them, but we don't recognize it.) Finally, Congress is getting the benefit of the doubt from voters, since the Democrats took control only a year ago. This emotion will wear thin after a while, but probably not until a second congressional term for Democrats.

The Voters' Merry-Go-Round

Tastes change in politics every bit as much as in fashion. Citizens usually vote retrospectively, assessing the inadequacies of the current occupant of the Oval Office and then looking for a replacement that doesn't have those flaws. Jimmy Carter won in 1976 because he had none of Richard Nixon's corrupt tendencies--and no connections to that cesspool called Washington, D.C. Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in 1980 since voters had decided by then they valued toughness and decisiveness more than Sunday School honesty. By 1988, Americans wanted a leader who was "kinder and gentler" than Reagan, without resorting to Massachusetts-style liberalism, so George H.W. Bush triumphed over Michael Dukakis. In 1992, the electorate rejected the seemingly out-of-touch, foreign-policy oriented Bush for Bill Clinton, someone who felt their pain in the midst of domestic economic difficulties. Eight years later, a scandal-saturated public chose (more or less) George W. Bush, a candidate who pledged to replace hedonism with probity.

In 2008, at least so far, we aren't hearing all that much about personal purity. Instead, after incompetence in several areas has come to define the Bush administration, voters appear to want experience and results--two of the reasons why the early polls have been led mainly by Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, politicians whose private lives have been messy but whose public careers have been defined mainly by success. When recent polls have asked respondents to name the most honest and trustworthy candidates in '08, Barack Obama and John McCain usually top the list, with Clinton and Giuliani lagging badly. Yet Hillary and Rudy score where it counts: they are judged the most decisive leaders.

Notice that our presidents have mainly delivered on the central promise of their election. Carter was honest, Reagan was tough, Bush the first was kinder, Clinton felt our pain (and, to his detriment, other things), and Bush the second was faithful to his wife.

However, note also that Americans, in seeking to remedy the immediate past president's inadequacies, ignore and introduce new ones into the White House. Four or eight years later, they will correct for them yet again. Voters often recognize they are not getting the complete package in any candidate, which may reduce their enthusiasm in pulling the lever or pushing the button for their chosen nominee. But we don't measure torque in the voting booth. Fervid ballots are counted the same as passionless ones. "A vote is a vote is a vote," as Gertrude Stein might have said if she had been in politics instead of poetry.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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