Larry Sabato has written two pieces at Real Clear Politics handicapping the 2008 presidential race. The first previews the Republicans; the second previews the Democrats. Sabato seems to accept the conventional wisdom that John McCain and Hillary Clinton are the frontrunners. Tucked behind them are a pair of Virginians, George Allen and Mark Warner.
Sabato imples that Clinton may be the less secure of the two frontrunners. As I read his pieces, it comes down to electability. McCain, as a centrist, is more electable than Clinton (with all of her baggage) and hence better situated to win the nomination.
In general, I think electability is overrated as a factor in determining nominees. Otherwise, the Republicans would have nominated McCain in 2000, and the Dems might well have nominated Bill Bradley. In 2004, electability may well have been a factor in the demise of Howard Dean, but one would be hard-pressed to show that John Kerry was the Dems must electable candidate.
Presidential nominations are determined by rank-and-file party voters, not by pundits and certainly not by bloggers. Hillary Clinton, I believe, is quite popular among the Democratic rank-and-file. Mark Warner is essentially unknown among that group. This gives him the opportunity to define himself, but his options aren’t that great. If he defines himself as a moderate pragmatist southern governor, there’s no reason to think he’ll excite the rank-and-file. If he defines himself as an anti-war candidate to the left of Hillary Clinton (Howard Dean lite), he may excite the base, but probably loses any “electability” edge.
It’s possible that by 2008, the war and the president will be so unpopular that a strident anti-war critic will reasonably be viewed as electable. If that happens, Hillary Clinton will be running as a strident anti-war critic. The fact that it took her a while to get there isn’t likely to hurt her much with the rank-and-file. John Kerry was slower off the same mark than Howard Dean in 2004, and it didn’t matter because Democratic voters knew he was a leftist at heart. Democratic voters believe the same about Hillary.
JOHN adds: More likely, by 2008 the war (in Iraq, that is) will be essentially over, and thus a non-factor. It’s way too early to know what issues might emerge by 2008–e.g., war with Iran–but if Iraq is over and there are no more terrorist attacks, the focus of the 2008 election will likely be domestic. For what it’s worth, that would hurt McCain. His strength is national security, and his opposition to tax cuts would hurt him badly with the base if that is the focus of the race.
PAUL adds: Great points. The key moments in the nomination process will occur just about two years from now. I expect that we’ll still have a substantial military presence in Iraq at that time, but it’s quite possible that the war will correctly be seen as winding down, and have been replaced as a top-tier issue by other concerns.
Meanwhile Ankle Biting Pundits considers whether McCain is gaining traction among rank-and-file conservatives. It’s important to remember that McCain did well in the early primaries in 2000, when he was running against a well-financed front-runner around whom the party establishment had coalesced.
JOHN adds one more: Dafydd ab Hugh assesses McCain’s chances in considerable detail, and finds them wanting. Dafydd makes one point that seems important to me, but is insufficiently commented on: McCain’s age. If McCain were the nominee in 2008, he would be the second-oldest first term nominee in history. The oldest? Bob Dole.
This, by the way, is also a problem for Hillary; unlike McCain, she apparently has chosen to deal with it through plastic surgery.
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