A very savvy friend of mine, a political player of many years, has put together a memo for various interested parties about the lay of the political landscape which he has allowed me to share with you. I'll excerpt passages in various posts over the next week or so, but I thought you might be interested today on his thoughts on the presidential race:
As we are only one-quarter of the way through the longest and first open election in decades, most pundit predictions are, no doubt, wildly premature. Pundits in Washington read early and inconclusive polls. They then sometimes venture to real America like anthropologists (think David Brooks or Broder) but manage to return with their preconceptions remarkably intact.
There will be many surprises and most Americans will quite sensibly not begin to pay real attention to all this until the holidays. Still, the level of interest in this Presidential election now is higher than any election since 1992. One can say that this summer’s YouTube/CNN debate did conclusively prove that “regular” Americans ask far better questions than Wolf Blitzer.
What we know, so far, is that Hillary Clinton runs a very efficient and nearly error free campaign. There is no question of her sizable lead in early national polls. John Edwards is running an unabashedly liberal campaign about the economic divide in this country. He will take chances. Barack Obama has built an amazing network of financial and presumably grassroots supporters and continues to demonstrate tremendous potential. It is hard to see much of an opening for Senators Dodd or Biden, and Bill Richardson needs to win the Nevada caucus to move into serious contention.
The Republicans are in some trouble in part because there is no heir apparent to anoint with the nomination. Their current putative frontrunner, Rudy Giuliani, is somewhat radioactive to the right to lifers, gun lobby and nativists at the base of the party. Certainly, he does echo the neocons well. He also has a trainload of personal baggage. Fred Thompson parachutes into the race from his perch on TV, but he also raises a series of questions. Most of his career has been as a lobbyist. Either he or Mike Huckabee will become the Southern conservative in the race. History has shown this is not a bad place to be in the GOP. Ron Paul, the Libertarian Congressman, is going to do better than expected.
John McCain, who was supposed to be next in line in the GOP hierarchy, spent all his money, though he can qualify for federal funding. He is still unpopular with the base even though he turned himself into a pretzel supporting Bush, thus destroying his moderate appeal. Mitt Romney’s political views are, shall we say, elastic. His religion is apparently a real problem with the evangelicals who make up the GOP base vote in several early primary states. But he may prove least objectionable to the various GOP factions and could prove tough in the general, as he morphs back to a Northeast Governor running as a Washington outsider.
The disgraced Newt Gingrich will not run but he labels the GOP field “pygmies.” Someone will emerge though rather quickly in the primaries. The failed leader Bush will be pushed to stage right. The Republicans have proven as good at both the mechanics and stagecraft of modern political campaigns as they have been as incompetent at governance. So expect a very close race in the end.
Because of the absurd early start and frontloading of the primaries, it is likely there will be party nominees in February, unless there is a split in all early primaries and no one has any momentum. This means six months say, before the Democratic nominee can spend general election money, so the presumed nominee will have to work to stay in front of the distracted public. There will likely be little money for paid communication during this period by the candidates, so the premium will be on earned media. Maybe next time the DNC should consider some time before the end of August for a convention. The Party though can spend in the interim going after the GOP nominee.
The Bush undertow on the GOP is severe and history indicates an incumbent party with this unpopular a President has difficulty winning another term. Only once in the last five tries (Bush in ’88) has a party succeeded in three consecutive terms. Reagan’s approval numbers were 20 points higher than Bush’s will be next year. The Republican issue agenda is out of favor with the public. So, the GOP and its allies will run a scorched earth campaign with character assassination of the nominee front and center. It will make George Bush’s 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis look like child’s play. An independent media campaign should begin next spring reminding voters of the many failures of the Bush and the entire GOP agenda. The GOP nominee should be tied around Bush, his failed policies, and anemic approval rating.
Hillary Clinton is the most centrist of the major Democratic candidates for the nomination while the broader electorate views her as the most liberal. This is not surprising as this has been the right wing campaign against her since 1992. If she is the nominee, the Republicans will plan their whole effort to make her the issue and to drive up her “unfavorables,” already in the high 40s. Of course they have already thrown the kitchen sink at her so who knows how much further opinion can be driven against her. Certainly she is far more unpopular in red geography that no Democrat would carry anyway. What a white guy in Georgia thinks about her really doesn’t matter. Democrats in red and purple geography though are concerned about the down ballot effect if she pulls out all the haters. The key question remains whether she can dampen negative perceptions through her performance. She managed that in upstate New York in her Senate race. There is little time for that type of retail politics in the Presidential. It is naive though to think there will not be a further smear of Bill Clinton’s private life. Kathleen Willey already has her book ready, and Wolf Blitzer, likely, has the interview already booked.
No doubt, there will be a quasi-racist campaign against Obama if he wins the nomination with an emphasis that he is “not one of us” given that exotic background and middle name. Suddenly, the media establishment has decided “experience” is the central criteria in a President. Too bad that was not the hurdle in 2000.
One journalist at the Atlantic wrote that the political press hated Edwards and tried to bury him in the first quarter. In addition, his economic prescriptions are viewed with great alarm by the merchants of the status quo. The right wing is also busy trying to push that he is not a macho “real” man like Rudy and Fred Thompson.
Bush though has smashed the Republican Party brand among Independents and has served to unite the ever-fractious Democrats. Whether this is just a reaction to the current neocon/Dixie politics is, of course, open to debate. The components for a more progressive coalition, even if temporary, are in place. The self-identified number of Democrats and Independent leaners to the Democrats is at the highest level since 1992.
The recent Democracy Corps memo has a number of encouraging sign posts:
The Democrats have an average lead of 12 points in the general Presidential and
9 points in the named Congressional ballot.
Democratic geography is solid right now while many red areas are evenly divided.
Democrats are now carrying White Catholics who Bush carried in 2004 by 13 points. No one can win the White House without the Catholic vote.
Democrats maintain a 2 to 1 lead with currently unmarried women and are marginally ahead with married women who Bush handily carried.
Among younger voters the margins keep growing. The generic Democratic nominee even has a 14-point lead among white voters under 30.
The current overconfidence in Democratic quarters though is a bit unwarranted. One only needs to remember Mike Dukakis and his 17-point July1988 lead. At this point in 2004, two 527s, ACT and the Media Fund were on their way towards raising and executing a $200 million-plus field and media effort. In many key states, this was the de-facto field program for John Kerry and a program of some relative scale needs to be mounted quickly. Bush and the right wing 527s still outspent Kerry and liberal 527s by $20 million in Ohio in 2004 according to one very informed observer.
Thanks to the Bush Supreme Court, corporations are now free to give unlimited money right up to Election Day on persuasion ads. Several magic words cannot be used. As a general rule, major corporations do not like Democrats controlling the White House and the Congress. So imagine one industry group, the insurers and drug companies under the GOPs current Medicare drug benefit and privatization schemes. The 10-year estimate from all of us transfering to these industries is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. So if they spend 1% to maintain this cash flow, it amounts to a rounding error. Halliburton and the rest of the war profiteers certainly have a vested interest in the GOPs theory of war without end. The oil and coal industries have similarly large stakes. So one should expect a great deal of independent spending during the year knocking down the Democratic nominee and it will be difficult to trace the origin of much of the money until later. Some spending will be done by make believe trade associations, others by newly created 527s.
The GOP nominee also has less electoral geography about which to be concerned. It also may be wishful thinking, for instance, to imagine West Virginia in the Democratic column. Florida is a reach, as is Virginia. If Rudy is the nominee, New Jersey certainly must be watched. Romney puts New Hampshire in serious play. It could get worse. An initiative currently circulating for the June 2008 ballot in California by the GOP would change the electoral votes to the winner by Congressional district instead of by state. If passed, this initiative would push 20-plus electoral votes to the GOP and could make the Democratic states won in 2000/2004 plus Ohio not enough for the Democrat. Winning Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona would be required. The Democrats are organizing to fight back but it will cost and divert money. Maybe next time, the Democrats should play offense by proposing a similar measure in Florida.
So there remain many serious obstacles in the path of any Democratic nominee, despite the current good news.
That money angle is especially important and something I don't think many of us in the Netroots are quite prepared for. The Democrats will be forced to rely on free media for nearly six months if the primary is decided as early as everyone thinks it will be. We need to think about how to deal with that.
And then there is the specter of corporations spending unlimited dollars on "persuasion" ads. This could be very powerful stuff, using the full energy of corporate marketing and advertising to sell the Republicans to a country that doesn't want them. It works all the time in the marketplace. We'll see if they can pull it off in politics.
As my friend notes, the Republicans are very good at campaigning and character assassination. It's what they do best, and the Democrats just simply don't have an equal talent. When you combine it with the GOP's nearly limitless access to money, it's a serious mistake to assume that the Dems can't lose. In a world where vast amounts of Republican money and corporate liars weren't available to bombard the people with an alternate reality, perhaps we could relax and assume that their epically disastrous performance in office would automatically disqualify them from winning any further elections for a while. But we don't live in that world. It's would be a very good idea to be prepared for some very, very nasty trench warfare.