2008: Can only Hillary stop Hillary?

 "One never really knows who one's enemy is"
- Jurgen Habermas .

In March of this year I wrote an analysis of the 2008 presidential campaign (2008: Over Before it Begins?). I started by saying: “One of the toughest things to figure out in politics is when it's over. The 2008 nominees for president in both major parties may not be decided in Iowa, New Hampshire or anywhere else next year. They may be decided by the end of this year. Indeed, perhaps they are decided already.”

I concluded: “But if you must make a bet today on who will win, you would be hard pressed to make a better bet with better odds than Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. To have history on your side in November 2008, bet on Hillary.”

What has changed since March? Everything yet nothing

Of course, when a person makes such bold predictions so early, skeptics are going to point to all sorts of reasons why the predictions are wrong. Many skeptics cited national public opinion polls to bolster their opinions. Polls depend on how the questions are phrased and the composition of the sample. They are most useful as a snapshot of opinion at the time the poll was conducted. They are also useful in understanding broad trends over time. Polls are of less use in predicting an ultimate winner of an election 20 months off.

Radnor’s Decision-Maker Research leaves a less clouded outlook. Radnor interviews American leaders in business, academia, the news media, government and public affairs. Then we compare their responses with those of the general public. In forecasting the presidential nominations, we target party activists - likely primary voters and caucus-goers in key states. Narrowing the sample further - to potential Democratic and Republican National Convention delegates and party leaders - makes the results clearer still.

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We conclude that Clinton has solidified her position and is the prohibitive favorite of the Democrats who matter most. Giuliani has been battered a bit but remains the narrow favorite among the Republican activists who will select the GOP nominee. This frustrates supporters of other candidates and those in the media who want a more competitive situation. They want us to believe that each race is still fluid. Among the population in general, that is true. Among the party activists – the people who will actually decide – the Democratic race is Clinton's to lose and the Republican race is Giuliani’s to grab hold of and win.

Will Clinton make errors and let another Democrat back in the race? Will Giuliani be able to consolidate his support or will he sit on a narrow lead - possibly allowing John McCain or another Republican to catch and pass him?

Conclusions from Decision-Maker Research:

· Republican leaders fear Clinton. GOP activists spent almost as much time discussing Clinton as they did discussing their own candidates. They had more to say about why Senator Clinton would or would not get the nomination than did Democratic activists. This focus on Clinton is an indication that Republican activists fear Clinton even as some of them say they think she will be the easiest Democrat to beat.

· Democrats are coming around to Clinton. Democratic activists initially expressed doubts that Clinton could win next November and seemed for a time to hope that another Democrat would catch on. A few activists were clearly agonizing over their decision, believing that Clinton could not win but fearful of going against the vengeful Clinton team. Slowly at first but with an increasing pace, they are reconciling themselves to Clinton. Many more are now lining up publicly behind her.

· Clinton is seen as best for today. When Radnor asked Democratic activists and the general public to select the candidate who would best represented the Democratic Party in the future, Obama was the choice. Edwards was the choice when people were asked which candidate best embodied the traditional values of the party. Clinton was perceived as best able to solve today’s problems. Voters are assigning Obama to a future role. They like him but believe that 2008 is not his time. Voters appreciate Edwards for his fidelity to long standing party positions but his time may have passed. Clinton is the “now” candidate. Voters can tell you that they like the three leading Democratic choices because they do like them. But Hillary Clinton is the choice for 2008.

· Women may vote for Clinton in larger numbers than expected. Just over 16 percent of Republican women in our focus groups who have gone to previous state or national GOP nominating conventions say they will consider voting for Clinton if she gets the Democratic nomination. That is an extraordinary figure because the Republicans will have no chance if even one-quarter of that number deserts the Republican nominee. These GOP women are among the most loyal workers and voters in the GOP. Clinton already has a wide lead among Democratic and independent women and some polls show that over 20% of rank-and-file Republican women say they will consider voting for Clinton. She leads among Democratic women by over 35 percentage points. Obama was expected do to well among women. As we pointed out in March, “Millions of single women have not been voting in the numbers normally found among women nationwide. Single voters are much more likely to vote Democratic. Expect that single women will be a major demographic group turning out and voting for Hillary.”

· Republicans remain hesitant about Rudy Giuliani. He is still viewed as too liberal, too much a New Yorker, too much a single issue candidate. The McCain meltdown left Republicans unsure whether anyone could stop Giuliani for the nomination. Mitt Romney is seen as a flip-flopper and other candidates or possible candidates have not caught on. The GOP leadership is concluding that perhaps there is no place to go but to the Giuliani camp.

· Many key Republicans oppose Giuliani. A party official in Virginia summed up the mood of many when he told our researchers that “Virginia will not vote for a guy with a vowel at the end of his name.” Anti-Giuliani rhetoric is found in some rank-and-file Republicans but is expressed by a significantly higher percentage of GOP leaders in the South and West. Exclusionary thinking can doom the party. As GOP activist Wayne Boan of Oklahoma puts it: "Politics is about making more and more new friends. We need everybody."

· The Republicans may swallow a poison pill. The anti-Giuliani sentiment within the Republican leadership could still stop Giuliani from getting nominated. That sentiment, which will probably exist even if Giuliani gets nominated, could cost more than just the White House. GOP candidates up and down the ballot could suffer and the Democrats could pick up seats at every level of government, from the House and Senate to state and local offices. The religious right is talking of bolting the party and running a social conservative as a third-party candidate. This could be a bloodbath.

· Rudy’s issue is slipping in importance. National security is dropping down the list of issues raised in Decision-Maker focus groups. That makes Giuliani a less likely winner a year from now. As the other Republican candidates try to echo Giuliani’s positions on terrorism and national security, Giuliani has to defend his turf. That turf is the only real hold he has on the party activists who will select the GOP nominee.

· McCain benefits from Giuliani's inability to consolidate support. Giuliani seems to have adopted a strategy that anticipates losing Iowa and New Hampshire, then smashing the opposition in the other early primaries. The problem with that strategy is McCain, who is getting a second look by Republicans who think that Giuliani might not make it. If Giuliani fails to get the nomination, his decision to bank on his broad national support instead of trying to be competitive in Iowa and New Hampshire will be the reason.

· Mike Huckabee is becoming the second choice of GOP leaders. His refreshing campaign style has moved him ahead of Thompson in mentions by Republican activists at the same time that he is being talked about by rank-and-file Republicans. This is bad news for Thompson and further confirmation that the Republican race is still open.

Follow the polls?

Here are links to a compilation of polls collected by a popular website. The lines going across the page for the Democratic candidates look somewhat like stripes of a flag, waving but not changing position.

The Republican lines are more confused and show recent weakening for Rudy Giuliani.

Democratic poll numbers

Republican poll numbers

That is the what of 2008. What about the why?

Clinton hurt herself in the debate earlier this week. She did not give crisp and clear answers. Yes, she was attacked by a gang of male candidates. Overnight polls show that the voters did not appreciate the tactics of the attackers. Clinton was warned that the attacks were coming but she seemed unready. Clinton lost her smile and her sense of humor. It was her worst night of the campaign. She will survive unless she repeats this poor showing. She is her own worst enemy - perhaps she is her only lethal enemy among the Democratic candidates.

Obama and Edwards have failed to push Clinton to the right so that they could claim the Democratic activists on the left. Slowly but adroitly, Clinton has moved left (consider her changing position on Iraq) and voters are finding it difficult to tell the philosophical differences among the three leading Democratic candidates. Edwards believed her failure with healthcare reform in the early months of her husband’s first term would make her a pariah on healthcare. Instead, Clinton came up with a plan that echoes much in the Edwards and Obama plans, and much in Romney’s Massachusetts plan as well. She introduced her plan and said that the scars from her previous defeat at healthcare reform make her the ideal person to enact reform now. Thus, she turned defeat into the virtue of experience.

Obama believed that former President Bill Clinton would be a liability. Instead, candidate Clinton introduced her husband on the campaign trail. She made a knock-off TV commercial in which she smiled that she was “always looking out” for her husband, the former president. She looked more presidential than the former president did. Eventually, the former president said his job in a Hillary Clinton administration might be to improve America's image in the rest of the world. That job needs doing and activist Democrats think that Bill Clinton can do it better than anyone else.

During debates until this week, Clinton did not allow the other candidates or the media to pin her down. “I will not negotiate against myself,” she responded to one question from Tim Russert about Social Security. With that answer, so frustrating for her opponents, she behaved as if she were already president. Clinton is running an efficient, mostly error-free campaign. But she would probably still have the lead even if she were not as effective as a candidate.

Giuliani has not closed the sale

Giuliani faces a tougher road because he has not been able to garner support from two of the three basic branches of the Republican Party: Social conservatives and the economic wing of the party. This leaves him with nation security hawks while national security is diminishing as a cutting-edge issue. Giuliani needs to break into at least one of the other two GOP constituencies. He has been unable to do so.

Giuliani's inability to break through is caused in part by Republican officials who have shown signs of support but have then held back. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: As those GOP leaders see Giuliani's inability to consolidate his lead, they have a further reason to hold back. This is partly Giuliani’s own fault, a first-time presidential candidate's mistake. He has not closed the deal with one party leader before moving on to try to make the next sale. Also, he has allowed Romney to run thousands of television commercials in key states without responding. Naturally, Romney has gained in name recognition and in favorable poll ratings. Has Giuliani given Romney too long a head start or can he still catch up? The answer may depend on the quality of Giuliani’s ads.

Giuliani should have understood that the party leaders were waiting to see whether he was going to pull away from Romney. Giuliani now must battle for support than would have come his way had he confronted Romney months ago. A show of success would have motivated the party leaders to jump on the bandwagon, as they have with Hillary Clinton.

The early caucus and primary states promise to be furious battlegrounds for the Republicans as Giuliani finally confronts Romney against the background of the other candidates trying to break through. Our Decision-Maker Research suggests that Giuliani will consolidate his support and Romney will fade. Thompson has not been impressive and only folksy Mike Huckabee or a revitalized McCain seem to have any chance. Huckabee may be campaigning for the second spot on the Republican ballot.

Clinton may not wear well

Meantime, Hillary Clinton is cruising along. Perhaps only if she makes a series of mistakes can Clinton be stopped, short of one other possibility. Clinton can get too much exposure. When we remind the general public that they will be seeing the next president on TV day in and day out for at least four years, and then ask if there are any candidates that they might tire of seeing every day, Clinton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich lead among Democrats who may not wear well. By a wide margin, non-candidate Newt Gingrich leads this dubious poll among Republicans.

To conclude with very long-shot projections, Bill Richardson is the choice among Democratic activists for vice president. Republican activists, perhaps anticipating Clinton at the head of the Democratic ticket, pick a woman for their VP - Secretary of State Rice. But Huckabee is moving up fast.

Source: Published with the kind permission of Inside Washington's Headlines, by Ken Feltman, Radnor Inc.

November 2007




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