Monday, March 13, 2006

The 2008 Race Is on — and the Field Is Smaller Than You Think

By Stuart Rothenberg

If you turned on C-SPAN last Sunday evening, you may have noticed that the network’s “Road to the White House 2008” was broadcasting a Feb. 20 speech by Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) to the Spartanburg County (S.C.) Republican Party.

Huckabee is mentioned as a possible contender for the GOP nomination, so it’s fitting that C-SPAN covers him from time to time, especially when he speaks in an early caucus or primary state such as South Carolina. He did a very good job in that speech, telling the audience what it wanted to hear, and mixing humor into his remarks.

But at the same time that we are all attempting to be fair and giving second- and third-tier presidential hopefuls an opportunity to sell themselves to the American public (and to Republican activists), let’s also be realistic about those nominations. Long shots no longer win presidential nominations. It’s been 30 years since one of the major parties nominated a true long shot for the White House.

Look at the presidential fields a year or so before Iowa and New Hampshire. If the eventual nominee wasn’t the clear frontrunner at that point, he was at least in the top tier of candidates.

Then-Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) were the favorites that far out in 2000 and 2004. Then-President Bill Clinton was unopposed for renomination in 1996. Democrats didn’t have a prohibitive favorite in either 1988 or 1992, but both Clinton and Mike Dukakis belonged to the pool of top-tier contenders. In 1980, when incumbent President Jimmy Carter won a contested renomination, and in 1984, when former Vice President Walter Mondale was the frontrunner, Democrats nominated the early favorites.

On the GOP side, George W. Bush (in 2000 and 2004), former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole (in 1996), George H.W. Bush (in 1988 and 1992), Ronald Reagan (in 1980 and 1984) and Gerald Ford (1976) were all favorites to win their party’s presidential nomination.

The two “recent” asterisks are Howard Dean, who began as a punch line but came close to winning the Democratic nomination in 2004, and Carter, who came from nowhere to win the Democratic nomination in 1976.

But Dean isn’t a true exception, since he didn’t win the nomination. And Carter’s success laid the seeds for why long shots haven’t won a nomination in three decades.

Since 1976, all presidential hopefuls have understood that they have to start early with a pre-campaign. That means raising incredible amounts of money, recruiting supporters, visiting the early primary and caucus states and polishing their speaking skills more than a year before the Iowa caucuses.

Given that, long shots no longer have the advantages that George McGovern (D) had in 1972 and Carter had four years later when they “surprised” their opposition by launching uphill White House bids far earlier than most of their eventual competitors.

If I’m right that the fundamentals of a presidential race have made it more difficult for long shots to pull off surprise victories, then we already have a pretty good idea who the 2008 White House nominees will be.

The GOP will nominate Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) or George Allen (Va.) or Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The Democrats will nominate Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) or Evan Bayh (Ind.), former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner or former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.). That’s it. The odds are very, very good that two of those seven hopefuls will be on the ballot for president in November 2008. One or two others may be in the No. 2 slot.

The only “out” that I’ll give myself is that if any of these top-tier candidates ends up not running, then that opening could create an opportunity for someone who’s now a long shot to move into the top tier. For example, were McCain to take a pass, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.) could potentially fill his slot.

So, if you really, really like Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) or Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), or Govs. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, George Pataki (R) of New York or Arkansas’ Huckabee, don’t be too disappointed when they fall short of winning their party’s nomination. (OK, I’ll admit to being a little uncomfortable including the very amiable Richardson on this list.)

I’m not exactly sure what to do with Kerry or Gore. Whether you put them into the top tier depends on whether you believe that in 2008 Democrats are likely to turn to someone who has lost in recent history. I don’t.

Even though the next president will come from a group of six or seven people we can now identify, that is no reason to ignore other hopefuls at this point. As a sitting governor, Huckabee surely deserves the opportunity to make his case to the public, and a surprisingly strong effort could credential him as someone’s vice presidential running mate.

Moreover, long shots in one election cycle can become top-tier contenders four years later, as Reagan found out.

But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that long shots have an increasingly miniscule chance of winning a presidential nomination — no matter how much we journalists and political junkies hold onto the romantic notion of a deadlocked convention or a dark horse nipping one of the favorites at the wire.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 9, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.