With the history-making nominations of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, 2008 is shaping up as the most fascinating election since the 1968 Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace brawl, or possibly the 1912 face-off between three presidents (Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson). The race in 1992 between George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot (the most popular independent since TR) looks almost bland in contrast. We’re likely headed for another election night where everyone stays up late — and with the added mysteries of race and gender, it will be a political junkie’s dream.
#ad#The events of the last 12 months have been equally dramatic to those of 1968: the assassination of Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto, the Russia-Georgia conflict, the astounding ability of a black candidate to win in virtually all-white states like Iowa and Vermont, the upset of Hillary Clinton followed by McCain targeting her voters, the record turnout, the housing bust, and the possible winding-down of the Iraq war.
Since Obama won enough delegates to claim the Democratic nod in June, neither man has been able to stay above 50 percent in national polls. Both parties came out of their conventions reasonably unified, and the two candidates are very evenly matched. (Both men have approximately 55-percent approval ratings). While there were more Democrats than Republicans in the 2006 exit polls, there were also more conservatives than liberals (with moderate-to-conservative Democrats being a key McCain target).
Right after the Democratic Convention, Obama told 60 Minutes that he expected the race to be close all the way, and he was almost certainly right. Obama did get a five- to eight-point lead from his convention, but McCain bounced right back with the Palin choice and his convention.
Last year, I wrote that 2008 would be a contest between Republican leaders (McCain and Giuliani) and the Democrats’ mandate for change. That framework still works: McCain is running on his hero biography, while the Democrats are trying to pin the disappointments of Bush on all Republicans. McCain is running as almost an independent candidate (“I don’t work for a party, I work for you”), stressing his reform credentials and promising to “fight for what’s right” and “fix the mess in Washington.”
It was fascinating to see McCain divorce himself from his more unpopular party: President Bush briefly addressed the convention via satellite while the much more popular first lady made a humanitarian appeal to help victims of the Gulf hurricanes. Vice President Dick Cheney not only didn’t attend, he was not mentioned once in any major speech. (McCain’s handlers were actually relieved that Cheney didn’t show up with his 30-percent approval rating and remind independent voters why they are in such a foul mood). In the last 100 years, no party going for a third straight win has ever had their nominee openly distance themselves from the previous eight years and go on to victory.
Meanwhile, Obama is seeking to ride the wave of displeasure with the last four years. More than 70 percent of voters still believe the country is on the wrong track, most believe that the country is in worse shape than it was four years ago (one of McCain’s ads even said this), and a solid majority want the next president to pursue different policies than the Bush administration has. These trends are still Obama’s best hope for victory.
The election could be so close that a freak event turns it — a terrorist incident, a debate gaffe, a lower-than-expected turnout, an economic jolt, a racial incident. Since the first George Bush’s solid win in 1988, we’ve gone through a cycle where both parties have averaged less than 50 percent of the popular vote, much like the period after the Civil War. Barring an unforeseen occurrence, we’re not likely to see either party break out until 2012.
So in all likelihood, the answers to these eight key questions will determine the outcome.
#ad#1. Can McCain energize the Republican base? By every measurement this year — voter turnout, fundraising, voter registration, polls, and the number of volunteers — Democrats have an edge. They can’t wait to get the Bush Years over, while the Republicans are deflated. According to the Pew Research Center, rank-and-file Democrats were more enthusiastic than their Republican counterparts about participating by a five- to ten-point margin. We’ll see if McCain’s successful convention can narrow the gap. In 2004, the turnout was 61 percent of eligible voters. This year could match the 20th century record of 65 percent set in 1960. One thing is certain: If Obama wins, big metro areas will play a huge role in that.
2. Will race sink Obama? Surveys this year have repeatedly shown that voters prefer a “generic” Democratic presidential candidate by margins of seven to twelve points. But they are apparently just not sure about Obama, as he has failed to consistently exceed 50 percent in the polls. His race may be the reason for at least part of this shortfall: The Gallup poll last December showed that 5 percent of Americans would not support a well-qualified black candidate. A Pew Center poll found that 6 percent of voters said they were “less likely” to support a black person, while 5 percent of respondents to an ABC/Washington Post poll said that they were “entirely uncomfortable” about having a black president. If only partisan Republicans were refusing to vote for a black candidate, that wouldn’t be a problem for Obama, as he wasn’t likely to get many GOP votes even if he were white. But the anti-black vote is spread almost evenly across party lines, greatly complicating his task.
The problem for Democrats is that the last two elections were decided by less than three points, and this year is that close, so even a small racial vote could tip the balance here. As of September 14, the average of national polls complied by RealClearPolitics.com showed the horserace essentially even. Assuming that undecided white voters will break heavily against the black candidate in the privacy of the voting booth, Obama is actually behind right now. As my former boss, CNN Analyst Bill Schneider used to say, any black candidate below 50 percent in late polls in a two-way race is extremely vulnerable.
3. Will women cross over for Sarah? In the last generation, men have largely voted Republican, women Democratic. Will women be tempted to “break the glass ceiling” for a Republican female? Women in Western suburban areas who are true independents might. Palin will be used to court women in the great swath of Middle America running from roughly Pittsburgh to Reno. It will be awfully difficult for McCain to reach the necessary 270 electoral votes without carrying Colorado, Montana, and Nevada. Women first got the right to vote in the West, most Western states have an above-average percentage of female legislators, community-property laws have been in force for over a century, and gun ownership is mainstream. So a woman, a lifetime NRA Member, and a crusading reformer in one could look attractive. If women in the suburbs of Denver and Las Vegas turn over big GOP majorities, Palin may be this year’s MVP.
4. If not, will Palin actually hurt the GOP? Vice-presidential picks rarely decide elections — a study by the late Alan Baron showed that that only Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960 made a positive difference over the last century. (The proof was that in his successful Senate campaign on the same day, LBJ ran eight points ahead of the Kennedy-Johnson ticket). Joe Biden seems like a safe choice; the real question here is Palin. She has a charming life story, but can she handle the big time? She made a good first impression at her introduction and a great second impression at the Republican Convention, but the vice-presidential debate in early October and her performance down the stretch will be crucial. In 1988, it was estimated that Dan Quayle cost the Republicans 2-3 percent of the national vote, but it didn’t change the outcome. Such a fall-off would likely be fatal this year.
#ad#5. Will the independent candidates make a difference? Like vice presidents, they rarely do. In the last 100 years, Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Ross Perot in 1992, and Ralph Nader in 2000 were the only independent candidates that changed the outcome of the election by diverting key votes away from the losing candidate. This year, Nader on the Left and former Republican representative Bob Barr on the Right will probably balance each other off with 1-2 percent. In a normal time, they probably wouldn’t matter much. But elections in this decade have been so close that even less than 1 percent can swing a key state (like Florida or New Hampshire in 2000). Watch to see if Barr takes away disaffected Southern male conservatives from McCain and if Nader gets another protest vote from white liberals or white union members.
6. Will minorities come out this year? The black turnout should set a record for Obama. This year’s record black turnout in the primaries virtually guarantees this. But will Asians and Hispanics share in the excitement? Hispanics are almost 15 percent of the population and Asians are roughly 5 percent, but their turnout has never come close to matching their population levels due to lower citizenship rates. Hispanic education and citizenship levels have risen steadily in the last 15 years. If there were ever a year when their turnout should jump, this year’s hotly contested race would be it. Hispanic turnout — and the proportion of it that goes to Obama — will be key in Western states like Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, where he’ll need two-thirds of the Hispanic vote to win. In early surveys, he is hitting his target proportions, so the question will be turnout.
7. Will outside issues matter? In 2004, various gay-rights referenda drove up rural and conservative turnout and helped save the Bush campaign in crucial swing states like Ohio and Missouri. This year, gay marriage will also be on the ballot in California and Florida. And affirmative-action referenda in key states like Colorado could help bring out conservatives and make the difference for McCain. (Voters have supported every racial-preferences ban that has made it to a statewide ballot.)
#8 Is Obama’s support too geographically concentrated? Obama will probably carry New York, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia by a total of 5 million votes, but in an electoral-college system where each state’s winner gets all the state’s delegates (except in Maine and Nebraska), it wouldn’t make any difference if he carried these states by one vote each. If the national popular vote is close, that means that McCain is ahead in most other places: Generally speaking, Republican votes are more efficiently spread across the small states of the Heartland. By carrying battleground states by one percent or less, McCain could win the election without winning the popular vote.
In a “normal” year, the Democrats would be solid favorites. But this year, Obama’s race and youth are massive X-factors. So are McCain’s age and his running mate’s gender and youth. And the debates likely will have a big impact on such a close election.
– Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant in California.