The 2008 presidential election cycle is full of strange anomalies reflecting the electorate’s deep divisions and doubts about the candidates and their uncertainties about the future.
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, for example, has an almost prohibitive lead over her nearest rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, but polls show that in the larger electorate she has the highest voter negatives of anyone in the race.
A recent Gallup poll asked Americans to rate the top candidates on a temperature scale to measure how they felt about them, with zero being the coldest and 100 being the warmest.
Gallup said last week nearly as many Americans rated Mrs. Clinton “totally cold” as rated her warm. The survey confirmed many months of polling showing nearly as many Americans have a negative view of her as have a positive impression.
Gallup said this obviously raised questions about her electability in the general election and suggested her strongest rivals (Sen. Barack Obama was seen as the warmest of the Democrats) would stand a better chance of winning the presidency in 2008 than someone so intensely disliked by nearly half of all eligible voters.
But Democrats have a tendency to nominate candidates who are not terribly warm or likable. Think John Kerry, aloof, cold, gloomy, or Michael Dukakis, arrogant, sanctimonious, humorless.
Republicans have many anomalies, too. We can start with the strangest turn in recent political history: The GOP‘s front-runner, Rudolph Giuliani, is from New York City, bastion of American liberalism. His highest elective office has been mayor.
This is a dramatic change in a right-of-center party where conservatives have had a lock on the nominating process since 1964, and its nominees have been senators, vice presidents, former vice presidents and governors.
But Mr. Giuliani wasn’t just any mayor. He was the widely acknowledged hero who led the city’s dramatic comeback from the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, who rescued and ran the world’s financial capital, whose economy, if a country, is one of the largest on Earth. He cut its taxes, restored law and order and has made the war on terrorism and keep our country safe the basis of his candidacy — hardly a squishy soft New York liberal.
Even so, he still faces another anomaly in his race for the nomination. If things stand where they are now in the Republican contests, it looks like Mr. Giuliani will lose the Iowa caucuses, and the New Hampshire, Michigan primaries, possibly South Carolina, to Mitt Romney, who is running fourth in most of the national polls. Presidential candidates rarely if ever lose so many early contests and go on to win their party’s nomination.
But Mr. Romney, a successful venture capitalist before he was governor of Massachusetts, has invested heavily in these early contests, believing they will pay off in a spurt of momentum that will help him race past Mr. Giuliani and newcomer Fred Thompson in the later contests.
Mr. Giuliani is running in these early primaries of course but he has all but conceded them, expecting to sweep the later states in the Northeast, the Midwest, certainly Florida where he has a wide lead, and in delegate-rich California. That is quite a gamble, even for a skillful poker player like Mr. Giuliani, but it is the hand he was dealt and thus far the polling numbers seem to be going his way — for the time being.
The other anomaly running through this 2007-08 cycle is the closeness of the race between the two parties despite a war opposed by a majority of Americans, an unpopular Republican president and voter disapproval of the economy.
If we are in such an anti-Republican environment, as analysts say, why isn’t Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, crushing the GOP’s front-runner in the head-to-head polls? On the contrary, Mr. Giuliani has the edge in some of them. Hillary has the edge in others. But no one has a slam dunk in any of them.
Meantime the presidential campaign races into the fall with a number of political variables up in the air that could change the environment in next year’s election.
The first is the war which Democratic leaders are betting will get worse. But if Gen. David Petraeus is right that we’ve made progress there — and I think he is — things will likely get better next year when the headlines will be about U.S. troop withdrawals as conditions on the ground improve.
The second is the U.S. economy’s gradual recovery from the housing downturn and credit crunch and the stock market’s likely rise in response to signs of increasing real estate sales.
If both developments occur, as I think they will, we face another close presidential election where, if Hillary is the nominee, you have to like the GOP’s chances.
Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.