There is a reason campaign professionals speak of presidential elections in terms of cycles rather than dates on a calendar. The process of choosing our nation’s leader is a roundabout business and seemingly one without end. Americans go to the polls, their votes are counted, and a winner is declared, then it’s on to a new round of speculation.
In that regard, the 2008 election—although it is nearly four years in the distance—is no exception. Talk of George W. Bush’s successor already is under way. But it is exceptional how wide open the race is to choose America’s 44th president. For only the sixth time in the past century, a two-term president will vacate the position. And, for the first time since 1952, the election will feature neither a sitting president nor his vice president seeking the job (assuming Vice President Cheney is not a candidate, which seems a safe bet). In theory, that gives both parties freedom to move in a new direction if they so choose.
But will Republicans and Democrats in fact chart new courses? Or will the 2008 election imitate the 2004 contest, which played along the same “blue” and “red” hues as the 2000 election (only three states—Iowa, New Hampshire, and New Mexico—changed party hands in November 2004)? Don’t look to the last “wide-open” election for any indication—not unless a dynamic new figure emerges on the political landscape. The winner in November 1952, Dwight Eisenhower, was the biggest political free agent of his time, not declaring he was a Republican until January 1952, just weeks before the New Hampshire primary. Odds are that whoever we’ll be voting for in November 2008 already belongs to one of the two parties—and is already planning to visit Iowa and New Hampshire.
Dynasty and Urgency
How then should we look at the future of presidential politics? Try thinking of it in terms of one party’s urgency and the other’s sense of dynasty. The latter refers to the current run of Republican presidencies—by November 2008, 28 of the last 40 years. It is the third such stretch in American history: Republicans also controlled the White House for all but four years from 1860 to 1884, as well as for 28 of the 36 years from 1896 to 1932. Can the GOP stretch its control into the next decade, or will the third Republican “dynasty” come to an end?
Democrats, on the other hand, urgently need to win the presidency before the next census, the next congressional redistricting, and the next change to the Electoral College’s balance—all of which will occur between the elections of 2008 and 2012. The results from last November underscore how shifting demographics affect the democratic process. President Bush was reelected with 286 electoral votes, compared to the 271 electoral votes he received in 2000. Pulling Iowa and New Mexico from the Democratic column gave the president 12 electoral votes, offset by the Republican loss of New Hampshire’s 4 electoral votes. Thanks to migration to the Sun Belt, however, Bush earned another 7 electoral votes in states that he also won in 2000 (for a net pickup of 15 electoral votes). With another favorable round of electoral shuffling, a Republican presidential nominee in 2012 would have a “base” of nearly 250 electoral votes, easily within striking range of the magical 270 needed to win the election.
How do the Republicans hold on to power? That’s a debate that won’t take shape until after the congressional elections of 2006. By then we’ll know the fortunes of the Bush administration—strong finisher or lame duck.
And how do the Democrats go about reversing their fortunes? It is familiar territory, with the party having gone through the same soul searching after 1988—perhaps not coincidentally, also a contest featuring a Bush and a Massachusetts Democrat. That last debate pitted traditional liberal Democrats (the Kennedy-Cuomo-Mondale wing of the party) versus a more moderate faction of mostly southerners and midwesterners that called itself the Democratic Leadership Council. One of the leaders of that faction? A little-known governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton.
Clinton, of course, would go on to win the presidency in 1992 by running a savvy campaign featuring his assertion that he was “a different kind of Democrat.” And at the time, he was, in the sense that he defied liberal orthodoxy. In 1992, then-candidate Clinton supported the death penalty, campaigned for welfare reform, promised a middle-class tax cut, and, in a bow to cultural conservatives, denounced rap music that celebrated cop killings. In the process he claimed five of the Old Confederacy states, not a single one of which either Al Gore or John Kerry managed to win.
Recapturing the White House
Thanks to the 22nd Amendment, Democrats can rule out a third Clinton campaign—unless the principal is Hillary, not Bill. In a speech at Tufts University shortly after the election, the junior senator from New York showed a flair for strategy and message: “I don’t think you can win an election or even run a successful campaign if you don’t acknowledge what is important to people. We don’t have to agree with them. But being ignored is a sign of such disrespect. And therefore I think we should talk about these issues.” She also told her Boston audience, “No one can read the New Testament of our Bible without recognizing that Jesus had a lot more to say about how we treat the poor than most of the issues that were talked about in this election.”
Obviously Mrs. Clinton studied the exit polls and saw that her party lost badly on the “values” issues. But a further look at the exit polls shows that the next election won’t be decided on values alone. Keep an eye out for these factors:
• Passion. According to CNN’s exit polls, 69 percent of voters said they voted for their candidate, not against his opponent. Bush won that portion of the electorate, 59 to 40 percent. Just one-fourth of the electorate said its motivation was to vote against a candidate, and Kerry dominated that segment (70 to 30 percent). This underscores the point that elections aren’t driven by negative karma.
• Geographic balance. The South accounted for 32 percent of the electorate; Bush won the region, 58 to 42 percent. His performance in the Midwest (26 percent of the electorate) nearly mirrored the national outcome: 51 to 48 percent. The West broke nearly even (a 50 to 49 percent Democratic advantage). The Democrats could only roll up the score in the Northeast (65 to 43 percent), but that was only 22 percent of the electorate. The GOP advantage in the South gave Republicans a 5 percent edge in the national vote—too much for the Democrats to overcome.
• The suburbs. The same CNN exit polls indicated that 30 percent of voters were urban; they went for Kerry, 54 to 45 percent. The rural vote (25 percent of voters) went 57 to 42 percent for Bush. But nearly half of the electorate was self-described suburban; Bush carried it, 52 to 47 percent.
• Race and gender. According to CNN, Bush carried only 44 percent of the Latino vote, yet it was an improvement of 9 percent from the 2000 election—and it explains why the president swept the Southwest. Bush also lost the female vote (51 to 48 percent), but that too was an improvement over 2000 (by 5 percent).
• Catholics and Jews. Although running against the first Roman Catholic nominee since John F. Kennedy, Bush won 52 percent of the Catholic vote, a key to his victory, as one-fourth of all U.S. voters are Catholic (and the percentages are even higher in the upper Midwest battlegrounds of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota). Bush received only 25 percent of the Jewish vote, yet that was a 6 percent improvement over 2000—and a factor in his winning Florida by 380,000 votes.
• Personality. Bush trampled Kerry in at least three character issues. Exit polls declared the president the stronger leader (87 to 12 percent), with a clearer stand on issues (79 to 20 percent) and more honest/trustworthy (70 to 29 percent). Kerry did receive 91 percent support as the more intelligent of the two candidates, but that quality finished dead last among the seven “important quality” traits put forth by CNN.
What this suggests is an uphill climb for the Democrats in 2008, though the odds are by no means insurmountable. The party certainly has high-profile contenders: Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Howard Dean would each enter the race with a built-in national constituency. Then there is John Kerry. And don’t forget Al Gore, who would be following the path of another former vice president, Richard Nixon, who lost a national election only to reclaim his party’s nomination—and the White House—eight years later. Those looking to repeat the Clinton magic of 1992 also have a stable of southern Democratic governors: North Carolina’s Mike Easley, Tennessee’s Phil Bredesen, Virginia’s Mark Warner.
The party out of power can also look outside America—to its friends in the United Kingdom. Britain’s Labour Party also went through a readjustment period during which it had to drop its left-of-center persona. However, it took Labour 14 years to convince the British electorate—a near eternity in American politics.
Perhaps it’s as simple as advertising for the right candidate. As the Associated Press wrote two days after the election: “Wanted: a former altar boy from the Southwest who speaks Spanish, married into a rich Republican family from Ohio and revolutionized the Internet after working as a volunteer firefighter in Florida. Position: president of the United States.”
Sounds simple enough.