We now know very little about the outcome of the 2008 race for president.That assertion probably seems outlandish, since we have already been (prematurely) bombarded with opinion polls, TV and radio ads, newspaper and magazine articles, fund-raising requests, and incessant talk-show host and newspaper pundit commentary about the many candidates already announced for the contest, and even about those not yet announced.
Much has been made about the fact that no incumbent president or vice president, former president or former vice president, is running in 2008 in either party. (Former Vice President Al Gore, also a former presidential nominee, may yet enter the race, so this is not yet quite accurate.) In any event, there are lots of “new” faces for the presidential contest in both major parties. There is also the real possibility that, as in many recent presidential years, that a formidable and well-financed third-party candidate will be running, someone who could affect the outcome as George Wallace did in 1968. Ross Perot did in 1992, and Ralph Nader did in 2000.
With 11 “major” candidates on the Republican side and eight “major” candidates on the Democratic side already announced, and at least two Republicans (Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich) and one Democrat (Mr. Gore) unannounced, the field of candidates is large and still quite blurry. Of course, all major candidates are not created equal. We have designated “tiers” for those who are frontrunners and those who (while often well-known) are not. There are also those who are designated “dark horses” as well, and this is an important category, because from it has come many a nominee (and president) in recent history.
As each new poll appears, many commentators breathlessly interpret the results as a new or continued “trend.” I suspect that the public at large, even those who are already beginning to pay attention to the presidential races, intuitively ignore these declamations, and wait for something truly substantive to happen.
First, we have to know all the major candidates who are running. Without knowing if Messrs. Thompson, Gore and Gingrich are in or out, we simply have too little information to judge the nomination contest outcomes. Similarly, we won’t be able to understand the race until we know whether Michael Bloomberg is going to run as an independent or not.
Second, we have to know what we can’t know now, including how events in the world are going to affect our foreign policy and international stability (or lack of it), and whether our domestic economy, doing nicely now, will continue to grow in the face of numerous challenges, including a weak housing market.
The usual timetable for presidential nominating contests begins in the winter prior to the presidential year. Iowa and New Hampshire then traditionally begin to end the previously untested speculation of the national punditry. In 2004, Howard Dean dominated the news and the polls until just before the Iowa caucus. His “inevitability” disappeared virtually overnight once the voters themselves began to weigh in. In 2000, John McCain won an upset in New Hampshire, and George W. Bush’s hitherto likely nomination had to wait until the South Carolina primary and beyond.
Undeniably, this campaign cycle has begun extraordinarily early. It already has a large number of serious candidates in both parties. Yes, there are “frontrunners,” but these are based on, as I contend, very flawed polling and incomplete information. Hillary Clinton may indeed win her party’s nomination, but we have no real evidence of that yet. Rudy Giuilani has “led” for some time, but we have no proof that he will triumph in the primaries.
My point is this: You can begin the political process as early as you wish, but you can’t change the fact that voters won’t begin to make decisions, via primaries and caucuses, until January of the election year. You can declare your candidacy way ahead of others, but until all the major candidates are in the field, you may be wasting money and too much exposure before the time voters begin to make decisions. You can take stands on various issues one or two years ahead of an election, but no one knows how real events in the world and economy will go until the months before the election.
Even the caucus/primary calendar itself is up in the air. With Florida deciding to have its primary on Jan. 29, the same day as the South Carolina designated early primary, we may see a chain of events that leads South Carolina to go earlier, then New Hampshire to go earlier and finally Iowa to go earlier, possibly to Dec. 17. After that, the large number of states that will hold their primaries on Feb. 5 may have the unintended effect of forcing the choice of one or both party nominees until the party conventions only a few months before the November election.
And so, real and useful answers about who will be the next president will have to wait. It’s as simple and complicated as that.
Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.