The Story So Far Is Stability; But Why?

The Presidential campaign has been underway for some time now, although no votes have been cast. What is surprising, to date, is the lack of surprises. The candidates who led the pack in the beginning are still on top, and it is looking less and less likely that they will be dislodged.
A year ago, knowledgeable Democrats worried that an unelectable Hillary Clinton might be nominated in 2008. They were reassured, though, by the fact that the Democrats have a history of nominating upstart candidates, like Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992. Not to mention candidates like Howard Dean who didn’t get the nomination, but captured the heart of the party’s faithful. But no such trend has emerged this year. Hillary is more solidly entrenched today than she was a year ago. John Edwards has been marginalized on the angry left, and candidates like Bill Richardson, from whom big things were expected by party leaders, have gone nowhere.
Something similar has happened on the Republican side. The earliest polls showed Rudy Giuliani as the front-runner. Some pundits thought that his support would melt away as the party’s conservative voters focused on his liberal record on the social issues. But it hasn’t happened; more than ever, the race looks like Giuliani’s to lose.
No dark horse has emerged on the Republican side. Mike Huckabee and Duncan Hunter have performed well in debates and impressed voters on the stump, but their poll numbers aren’t moving perceptibly. Mitt Romney has raised a lot of money, by Republican standards, but his campaign can’t be happy that his numbers, nationwide, are stuck in single digits. Fred Thompson assumed the mantle of “somebody else” early on, but enthusiasm for his candidacy appears to be waning even before he officially enters the race. His fundraising has been disappointing, and there is no sign of a serious groundswell in his favor within the base.
Put it all together, and a Clinton-Giuliani contest is looking ever more likely. What is going on here? Why the lack of volatility in both parties?
There are several possible explanations. One is that the polls mean little because most people aren’t paying attention. The numbers are soft, this theory holds, and once votes are actually counted, and, for example, Mitt Romney wins both New Hampshire and Iowa, voters who are not seriously attached to any of the other candidates will flock to his banner. Or, in another scenario, John McCain wins New Hampshire and South Carolina with the help of independent voters, and the problems that have plagued his campaign are forgotten as he resumes the role of front-runner.
I think this theory has some merit. The fact remains, though, that in both parties, a solid plurality of voters seems satisfied with a candidate that, on paper, is seriously at odds with the party’s activists on important issues. Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq war, refuses to apologize for her vote, and insists that a President must act responsibly in foreign policy. It is hard to think of a position that would more fundamentally offend many partisan Democrats. Giuliani, meanwhile, has not backed off his moderate-to-liberal views on abortion and other social issues, yet he seems to have paid little or no price with the party’s conservatives. Why?
I think the explanation lies mostly in the polarization that marks today’s political climate. What the most committed activists in both parties want in 2008 is victory. Republicans believe that it would be a disaster for Hillary Clinton or any other leading Democrat to be elected President, and not only because of national security issues. The Democrats see it the same way: after eight years in the wilderness, they are desperate for a Democratic President–any Democratic President–who will staff the upper levels of the executive branch and the federal courts with liberals, and will punch the symbolic buttons to make Democrats feel that liberalism is the wave of the future, not a fading relic of the past.
So the true believers in both parties aren’t looking for a true believer nominee; they’re looking for a winner. Something could happen to convince them that Clinton or Giuliani is not, after all, the safest bet; if so, the poll numbers could shift quickly. Absent such a development, however, there is every reason to think that Giuliani and Clinton will lead pole-to-pole and face off in 2008.
UPDATE: Gallup’s favorable/unfavorable ratings came out today; the results are generally consistent with this hypothesis, especially on the Republican side. Rudy Giuliani commands the respect of the American people more than any other candidate, with a 55% favorable rating–the only one that is over 50%–and a net 23% favorability. Hillary Clinton fares much worse, with a net favorability rating of -2, worse than all of her rivals. That’s reassuring for us Republicans, but, to be fair, I think other recent data have been more favorable for Hillary.
PAUL adds: To John’s excellent analysis, I add only that there may be one important distnction between what we see with Democratic voters, as opposed to their Republican counterparts. Clinton’s numbers among Democrats are significantly stronger than Giuliani’s numbers among Republicans, and her trend-line is favorable while his is not. Clinton stands at about 40 percent, a pretty good number at this stage in a crowded field, and this number is up by about five points from earlier this year. Giuliani stands at about 30 percent, down almost 10 points from six months ago.
Thus, there seems to be less satisfaction with Rudy among Republicans than there is with Hillary among Democrats. Why? First, it’s normal for the party that’s held the presidency for a while to be more demanding, in terms of orthodoxy, than the party that’s been in the wilderness. Second, and more important I think, Giuliani is less an orthodox Republican than Clinton is an orthodox Democrat. Giuliani parts company with an important bloc of his party on an issue of critical importance to it. Clinton is pretty much a down-the-line liberal who provides a few centrist atmospherics. As crazed as some Democrats are about the war, Hillary’s refusal to apologize for her vote does not constitute apostasy on a par with Giuliani’s pro-choice position.
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