Sabatos Crystal Ball


History versus circumstance in the general election

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics April 17th, 2008


It’s obvious to just about everyone that, at least theoretically, the Democrats have a near-perfect climate for presidential victory in 2008. A deeply unpopular Republican President is mired around 30 percent in the polls; last week, Bush was at 28 percent, a couple points higher than Richard Nixon on the day he resigned. Bush hasn’t seen majority backing in three years or even a miserable 40 percent support level in two years. General Petraeus’ optimism notwithstanding, a large majority of Americans believe that the Iraq war wasn’t worth fighting and should be phased out as soon as reasonably possible. The economy has tanked, gas prices are through the roof, and an incredible eight in ten Americans think the country is seriously off on the wrong track — usually a death knell for the White House party.

John McCain, as the nominee of the Republican Party, is saddled with the legacy of the 30 percent President. He spends much of his time defending and advocating the out-of-favor Iraq War. He admits that he knows relatively little about economics and hasn’t focused on the subject during his decades in Congress. If elected, McCain would be the oldest first-term President, but this appears to be a time when the public is seeking to turn the page and start afresh. McCain has raised so little money by comparison to both his Democratic opponents that it has become a lingering embarrassment. And you tell us that McCain has a chance to win?

Well, yes. We wouldn’t bet on him just now, and if he wins, it will likely be a minimal Electoral College majority. Still, it’s more than theoretical that McCain could pull off an upset. Actually, the word “upset” doesn’t quite capture the significance of his possible victory. Based on 220 years of precedent, a McCain win would be a striking repudiation of American history, since no presidential candidate of a two-term incumbent party has ever been elected under this set of severely adverse conditions.

April is not November, but McCain has some reason for optimism if one looks at the recent polling. Sometimes McCain is up a few points on Obama and Clinton, and sometimes he’s down a few points, but it’s fair to call the election a tie today. Obama does a bit better than Clinton when matched against McCain but not consistently or substantially so.

Let’s also remember that the current match-ups do not reflect the future. When Democrats settle upon their nominee in the next couple of months, that nominee-in-waiting will receive a boost in the polls. The circumstances at the time will determine how much of a boost, but a noticeable gap between McCain and the Democrat is likely to open — and not in McCain’s favor.

So, recognizing the exceptional degree of difficulty facing McCain and the improbability of its happening, how could McCain frustrate the Democrats and snatch victory from the yawning jaws of defeat? Without question, some of the following conditions would have to be met:

  1. Democratic Dissension. The Democrats don’t have to go as far as self-immolation, though the Republicans would obviously welcome it. The Obama-Clinton contest would just have to continue to deteriorate into vicious negativism and nasty counter-charges, such as we are seeing on a daily or weekly basis. The key for the GOP is for the Democrats to alienate permanently the losing candidate’s most dedicated cadre of supporters. This is tough to do, since the clear historical trend has been for the vast majority of party identifiers to return home, even late in the general election campaign (as Reagan Republican voters did for Gerald Ford in 1976 or Democratic voters did for Al Gore in 2000).

  2. Quiet on the Middle Eastern Front. The less the voters are concentrating on Iraq, the better for McCain. The inconvenient truth is that Americans want out quickly, hang the consequences, and McCain doesn’t. McCain’s principled stand may warrant him a chapter in the next edition of Profiles in Courage, but most of the currently featured politicians in JFK’s book were defeated. Could it be possible that good news will come out of Iraq in October? Could Gen. Petraeus announce that so much progress has been made that he is recommending that the freeze in troop withdrawals be thawed? This is reminiscent of LBJ’s last-minute bombing halt of North Vietnam in late October 1968 — the move that nearly propelled Vice President Hubert Humphrey to victory over Richard Nixon. Notice that we said Petraeus and not Bush. President Bush is so roundly disliked — far more so than Lyndon Johnson was in ’68 — that any announcement by Bush would be viewed with deep skepticism and suspicion. A backlash could develop among millions of voters who might believe that they were being manipulated. Additionally, the announcement would depend on genuine, manifest good news. And the insurgents have sometimes demonstrated knowledge of the election calendar, so they could not be counted upon to cooperate.

  3. A Short and Shallow Recession. The avalanche of truly awful economic news has buried consumer confidence for now. Of late, we’ve had some depressing chats with experts in that field, and their gloomy outlook is for the American stagflated slowdown to last two years or more. If their forecast proves accurate, McCain has only the slimmest chance to win in November. Voters simply do not reward the incumbent party when the economy is terrible. We leave aside entirely the legitimate argument that Presidents don’t run the $14 trillion annual U.S. economy — thank goodness — and therefore do not deserve the credit for good times or the blame for bad times. What matters is what the electorate believes, and to be blunt, Americans like to have someone to blame. He lives in the White House. But for the purpose of our argument in this essay, let’s project a rosier scenario: The recession turns out to be a typically short, shallow downturn of just a couple bad quarters. It’s possible that by November, things will be looking up for the economy and for McCain’s chances. Of course, voters must perceive the shift if they are to become more optimistic. The problem is that media coverage of a bad economy tends to be self-reinforcing and usually elongates the era of bad feelings — potentially grim news for McCain.

  4. President Who? Chief Executives of both parties live in a pleasant bubble, surrounded by adoring crowds and groveling aides. They regard critical press and low poll ratings as the rants of lunatics and biased pundits who refuse to recognize their greatness. President Bush is no different. He will never be on a ballot again, so he can safely brush aside or discount entirely disagreeable realities. (As Vice President Cheney said a few weeks ago, when presented with the evidence of the public’s strong discontent with the Iraq war, “So?”) John McCain is not so lucky, and he will be on the ballot in six and a half months. McCain needs all of the 30 percent who still back Bush, but he must find 20 percent among those who dislike the President. This high-wire balancing act will require the skill of an Olympic-qualifying gymnast. McCain will have to stress his fealty to certain Bush/Republican principles, while staking out independent, anti-Bush ground on specific issues (such as spending, China, and so on). It wouldn’t hurt for McCain to remind the public, subtly but with some frequency, that he ran against Bush in 2000 and predicted Bush would not be a successful leader. (The videotape of McCain hailing Bush in 2004 will have to be seized as contraband.) Far more helpful than this, however, would be the announcement that President Bush intends to take a lengthy foreign trip in October, with the even more unpopular Vice President Cheney in tow. There must be many obscure nations the two have not yet visited — ones with no operating TV satellite relays. Global warming is affecting Antarctica, for example, and Bush could be the first President to spend time there. The difficulty for McCain is that one gets the sense that Bush has no clue what a massive deadweight he actually is for his potential successor. To McCain’s chagrin, Bush may even insist on campaigning with him on U.S. soil.

  5. The Need to Check Congress. You can’t find a nonpartisan analyst of congressional elections who isn’t predicting that Democrats will maintain control of both houses of Congress this November. In fact, the lackluster debate is not about partisan control but rather how many additional seats the Democrats will get in the House and the Senate. That’s good news for the Democrats — except that Americans don’t trust either party, and most people rather like building in an extra “check and balance” by having Congress and the Presidency controlled by different parties. McCain could capitalize on this sentiment: “I’m the only thing preventing complete Democratic dominance of the federal government, and they’ll go hog wild in spending, and far to the left in social policies if you give them the keys to both Capitol Hill and the White House.” Yet this argument will require McCain to admit what his fellow GOP leaders are loath to acknowledge, that they will lose Congress rather badly. It will help McCain if he speaks the truth, even if his congressional colleagues think he’s cutting them off at the knees.

  6. Exploiting the Special Weaknesses of Obama and Clinton. It is fair to say, given the conditions of this election year, that McCain is the default candidate. Voters will first look at the Democratic nominee, hoping to make a change from George Bush’s persona and policies. Only if people find the Democrat wanting will they turn, second-hand, to McCain. This assumption thus requires the Republicans to make clear what is unacceptable about the Democrat. Whether the nominee is Obama or Clinton, McCain is bound to make the case that the Democrat is too liberal, too unreliable on national security, and too determined to raise taxes. All of these may have an impact, especially the latter, since a substantial tax increase for some Americans is nearly guaranteed should a Democrat win. (The debate will be about which “some” — just “the rich”, or the middle class, too.) Should Hillary Clinton surprise, and somehow come back to win the Democratic nomination, McCain will focus on “the Clinton issue” — her personality, her husband, and the past Clinton scandals. Gender bias — the hidden belief that a woman should not be President — would be a mainly internet-driven part of the campaign. With Obama, the extra dimension of the attack is two-fold. The legitimate prong is inexperience, given Obama’s very short political and governmental resume. McCain himself will have no hesitation in pursuing this line of argument. The illegitimate but unavoidable element of the campaign will be race. We have already discussed some aspects of this in the Crystal Ball, and only the naive will think that the racial controversies of the primary season will not be revisited and expanded upon for the general election. Most of this will come from “independent” political committees such as the so-called 527s, or anonymously across the internet. In the end, the eternally divisive, often covert issue of race may be the single greatest threat to Obama’s election, and a substantial hidden advantage for the Republican candidate.

How many of these half-dozen factors must be realized for McCain to win? It’s difficult to say, but at least half would be a good guess. No doubt our “Six Stipulations for Success” would constitute John McCain’s ideal November. By definition, exactly half of the major-party presidential candidates are lucky in the general election. McCain will need all that Lady Luck has to offer if the electoral formula we suggest here is to materialize.