Thursday, July 10, 2008

Where the Race for the White House Stands Right Now

By Stuart Rothenberg

This column is not a prediction. Predictions aren’t worth much. Instead, readers should view what follows as an assessment — an assessment that leads to a relatively obvious conclusion, but one that is not set in stone.

With just about four months to go until Election Day, the national political landscape continues to favor Democrats strongly. Indeed, almost every bit of national- level data reflects problems for the Republicans.

Voters give President Bush a failing grade. And to a large extent because of that, they have a better opinion of the Democratic Party than they do of the GOP. Not surprisingly then, those same voters see Democrats as better able to handle almost every issue, including taxes and fiscal responsibility, on which the Republicans have traditionally had a significant advantage.

For months, even for years, the national news has been bad, so it’s not surprising that voters want change. All of the numbers strongly suggest that Americans see the Democratic Party as the better vehicle for bringing about change than the Republican Party.

In spite of some better news from Iraq, most Americans think the war was a mistake and the administration’s performance inept. Perhaps it’s a sign of Republicans’ problems that most GOP officeholders and strategists would rather talk about the war than about domestic issues.

The economy has sputtered along for a while, but the most recent news has been much worse. Increased unemployment, continuing problems in the nation’s financial sector and much higher fuel costs and commodity prices (and therefore inflationary pressures) have further eroded consumer confidence and pulled the rug out from under stocks.

There is simply no reason to believe that the news will improve measurably between now and late October, which means that there is no reason to believe that the American public’s underlying mood will turn up dramatically.

Financially, Democrats are awash in cash, while Republicans will have far fewer resources. This is true at the presidential level now that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has opted out of public funding, but also at the House and Senate campaign levels.

Enthusiasm is greater among Democrats than Republicans, and Democrats have gained in registration in many states and Congressional districts.

Given all of this evidence, Obama has a far easier road to the White House than Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). The Illinois Senator merely has to take advantage of the political current, while McCain must swim against it, persuading voters to support him in spite of his party and Bush’s performance.

Finally, Obama is a great orator, while McCain is not. The Arizonan has a wonderful story to tell and is a true American hero, but he is not nearly as charismatic as Obama. And he is 71 years old, which does not present an ideal visual contrast with the Democrat.

This isn’t a tough climb for McCain — it’s a veritable Mount Everest.

And yet, it’s simply too soon to declare the presidential race over. Especially since it has barely begun.

Unlike many other kinds of elections, the presidential race is to a large extent about the candidates. McCain’s own image is much better than his party’s, and for all of Obama’s strengths and appeal, the Democrat isn’t without liabilities and weaknesses.

Obama’s race will limit his appeal to some voters, who will have greater difficulty relating to him than they would a white candidate. And even if you strongly disagree that he is “arrogant” or “elitist,” as some of his opponents have said, it’s certainly true that he lacks the warmth that some politicians possess.

Questions about Obama’s experience and readiness for the presidency still need to be answered. And, of course, his positions on issues (to the extent that he is forced to discuss them in detail) could limit some of his appeal.

The Electoral College could help McCain, if the national numbers stay close. While, even in a close race, he may lose a couple of states that Bush won in 2000 (Colorado and Virginia certainly are possibilities), Michigan seems less than secure in the Democratic column.

Ultimately, McCain’s chances depend on voters being uncertain about Obama’s readiness for the job and uncomfortable with him as president. And, of course, McCain must deflect Democratic efforts to portray him merely as a successor to Bush and the traditional Republican agenda.

Obviously, the 2008 race for the White House could blow open between now and Election Day. But even if that doesn’t happen, the underlying fundamentals make an Obama victory more likely. Still it isn’t inevitable, and that’s more than enough reason to continue monitoring the race closely.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 7, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.