Sign up for Sabato's Crystal Ball e-mail updates

Dumb Questions for the 2008 Presidential Contest
PLUS - September 19 Primary Updates

Recently I was in a taxi cab in San Antonio, Texas, and tossed out my favorite query for cabbies: "What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked in your cab?" A lovely Latino lady who had been driving passengers for years said, "That's easy. Just the other day a man asked me when we passed the Alamo, 'Why in the world did they build the Alamo in the middle of downtown San Antonio?'" Of course, the Alamo structure dates to 1744--long before there was a downtown San Antonio!

The Crystal Ball is well aware that it was only last month the Crystal Ball published a piece entitled "Remember the Alamo" with regard to the 2006 battle for the House, but the city of San Antonio seems to be reminding us of all sorts of important lessons this year. Dumb questions for cabbies are one thing. But this early in a presidential contest, dumb questions can elicit revealing answers, because no one can be very sure what will really happen in two years. Let's try a few:

Do the early polls we see really matter?

Most of the time, they do. The early frontrunners in the ubiquitous surveys of presidential preferences frequently get nominated. This is good news for Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, who leads almost all her party's polls, and John McCain or Rudy Giuliani (if he runs) on the Republican side--the two GOP co-frontrunners. But there are critical modern era exceptions, all on the Democratic side. Ted Kennedy led the polls leading up to 1972 and 1976, but George McGovern and Jimmy Carter won the party's nomination. Kennedy again led early on for 1980, this time against President Carter, but Carter--in his own words--"whipped Kennedy's ass" to win re-nomination. Senator Gary Hart led early for 1988, but after some Monkey Business, Michael Dukakis grabbed the nomination. Bill Clinton was far behind Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York and Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey for 1992, but they didn't run and Clinton did. Finally, John Kerry had faded badly for 2004, until a surprise Iowa caucus victory revived him, propelling him toward the nomination. The crown rests uneasily on any Democratic frontrunner, save for most incumbents, and 2008 is incumbent-free.

What of the Republicans? They are famous for sticking with the script and nominating the "next in line." Barry Goldwater was the great exception in 1964, but Nixon in 1960, 1968, and 1972; Ford (barely) in 1976; Reagan in 1980 and 1984; Bush Sr. in 1988 and 1992; and Bob Dole in 1996 fit this model. When there isn't a logical crown prince, the GOP will invent one, as they did using bloodlines with Gov. George W. Bush in 2000. Perhaps that is happening with John McCain for 2008, but it's too early to tell. It's at least as likely that in the most wide open field since 1928, one or both major parties may surprise us by choosing a nominee who was well down in the early polls. Two Jimmy Carters in one year? Stranger things have happened in American politics!

If we could only know a couple of things in advance that would tell the tale in '08, what would they be?

The correct answer is: Nothing. In politics as in life, the rules are made to be broken. However, based simply on history, most of the time the money game matters, especially the number of millions socked away in campaign war chests on the eve of the actual election year. Contrary to what cynics may insist, cash is not always the alpha and the omega of presidential politics. John Kerry likes to point out that his campaign was so poor in late 2003 and early 2004 that he took out a $6 million loan in order to finance his Iowa victory. But on the whole, if Candidate A has millions more than Candidates B, C, and D on January 1, 2008, Candidate A would be a reasonable bet to be nominated. (Don't bet the house; maybe the driveway.)

The other variable to watch is the schedule of primaries and caucuses. Does a candidate hail from one of the kick-off states? Are there regional advantages accruing to particular candidates in the final schedule? Has someone lined up the major powers in one of the first states (the reigning governor, senators, and party pooh-bahs)? These indicators don't always work. For example, an Iowa candidate (such as Senator Tom Harkin in 1992) can shut down the process and run virtually unopposed, thus revealing little. Howard Dean was from Vermont in 2004 but that didn't help him in neighboring New Hampshire; the other neighbor with a shorter border, Kerry, won. George W. Bush had an enormously impressive list of supporters in New Hampshire and Michigan in 2000, but John McCain won both states easily.

Not incidentally, the primary schedule in 2008 has already been the subject of fierce formal debate within one party's ranks. The Democratic National Committee, long uneasy about heavily white Iowa and New Hampshire's domination of the opening spotlight, ultimately decided to allow moderately Hispanic Nevada to convene its caucus three days ahead of New Hampshire. Additionally, just as in 2004, the DNC approved the South Carolina primary to take place week after. So what does it mean? Just as many football coaches revel in a season schedule they perceive to be well-suited to their team, 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards must love the looks of his party's brand new calendar. The quick succession of Iowa (which he would have won in 2004 had caucuses been held a week later), Nevada (home to phalanxes of service industry unions sympathetic to his pet issue of poverty), and South Carolina (his native state and only 2004 primary victory) structurally inflates Edwards's 2008 odds at the expense of other Democrats in his same tier of the field.

The Crystal Ball must offer some cautionary notes, without which this answer would not be complete: The Republicans, and the states' governors and state legislatures, may not go along with the Democrats. And no matter what the parties want, New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner may have the final say since he has the statutory authority to push the Granite State primary at least a week ahead of any other similar contest. Make no mistake, though: The order of primaries and caucuses is critical, given the momentum usually generated by triumphs in the first few.

Not to put too fine a point on it, our current system of scheduling is insane. I have recently proposed a new twist---the Regional Lottery Plan--to bring rational order out of Russian-roulette chaos. You can read more about this plan in the final section of Politics: America's Missing Constitutional Link, a recent article published in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Since President Bush is a lame duck and can't run again, will he really even matter in '08?

Unquestionably, President Bush won't be on the ballot, but like all outgoing two-term Chief Executives, his presence will considerably influence the election. No one knows where President Bush will be in the Gallup Poll this November, much less in November 2008. Given his poll weakness for over a year now, let's assume that he is still well below 50 percent by the time the nominees for his successor are chosen in early 2008. In one sense, both parties will be looking to the post-Bush era as they consider their choices. Republicans may hope to provide the desired change simply by picking a candidate who doesn't remind voters of Bush. Advantage: McCain and Giuliani. Disadvantage: George Allen and Sam Brownback. That part of the equation is obvious. The interesting, unpredictable part is the Democratic reaction to Bush's low numbers. Will their nemesis's distress lead them to become overconfident and think they can pick any candidate, believing victory in November is assured? If so, look for the Party to self-destruct by choosing a nominee who is personally unappealing or someone too far to the left to win any Red states. Advantage: Hillary Clinton, Russ Feingold. On the other hand, the enticing prospect of likely triumph may moderate the Democrats, to insure that their standard-bearer appeals to the mainstream and can win some elusive Red (or Purple) states. Advantage: Mark Warner, Evan Bayh.

Is there any chance for Independents and third-party candidates?

Sure, there is, though right now it doesn't appear to be anything approaching even a slim possibility. That could change, and the centrist forces of Unity08 have massed to prepare the way in case the two major parties give the American people a choice between the far right and the far left. Odds are, at least one of the parties will be smart and select a widely admired candidate. But let's recall that in June 1992, independent Ross Perot was at 39 percent in the Gallup Poll, while the incumbent President, George H.W. Bush, was at 31 percent and the future President, Bill Clinton, was at 25 percent. Had Perot been less flawed and more experienced politically (and not dropped out of the race for a few months), he might well have won. The 1992 electoral fluctuations should still serve as a warning to Democrats and Republicans about what can happen under the right (and left) set of circumstances.

Is there a substantial political impact to the parties' choice of national convention sites?

What an instructive question with which to conclude this Crystal Ball. Every four years, a grove of trees is sacrificed to print silly, foolish stories about the political impact of the geographic sites selected by the parties for their conclaves. The Bush Republicans tried the gambit twice. In 2000 the GOP National Convention in Philadelphia was going to win Pennsylvania for Bush; he lost it decisively. In 2004 the New York City-based GOP Convention was going to reemphasize Bush's September 11th leadership and put the states of New York and New Jersey into play; he lost both handily. The only time the Crystal Ball can remember a convention site actively helping or hurting was the 1984 Democratic National Convention, held in San Francisco. That pleasant, very liberal Golden Gate city helped the Republicans to further define the Democratic ticket of Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro as leftist. The prominent TV appearances on the Democratic convention floor by the transvestite fake nun, Sister Boom-Boom, didn't help the Democrats' case. For 2008 we are already seeing articles extolling New Orleans as the pick to win Louisiana over by demonstrating caring about Hurricane Katrina, or the Twin Cities to capture swing-state Minnesota, or Orlando to nail down some beachfront Electoral College property in the South. As PE aptly put it, don't believe the hype. Just go to the Conventions and enjoy them, because those spectacular summer events will be as forgotten as sun tans and cotton candy by November.



September 19 Primary Updates

GOVERNOR

SENATE