Thursday, March 29, 2007

In Democratic Race, What Tier Should John Edwards Be in?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Now that former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has announced that his wife is once again fighting cancer but that he remains in the presidential race, it’s time to ask the obvious question: Is the Democratic race a two-person contest between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) or a three-way race with Edwards also in the mix?

Edwards served more time in the Senate than Obama has, and he was his party’s nominee for vice president in 2004 after running a credible race for the top job on the ticket.

But he has been eclipsed by two celebrities — a woman and an African-American — who have more star power and fundraising ability.

Edwards’ strengths in the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination include a tenacity evidenced by his decision to keep running after his ticket’s defeat in 2004, a strong performance on the stump and a surprisingly strong second-place showing in the ’04 Iowa caucuses. Anyone who has seen the former Senator performing in the round, surrounded by a group of Iowa caucus attendees or New Hampshire voters, has seen his skill in talking to and connecting with his audience. He oozes sincerity.

Edwards’ “Two Americas” stump speech generally received high marks from neutral observers in the previous presidential cycle, and he begins with experience he didn’t have last time, a team that has been through this before and an important reservoir of support in Iowa, probably the single-most crucial state for him.

If Edwards can place first or second in the Hawkeye State’s caucuses, he can dramatically alter the Democratic race. Not only would it boost the buzz about the former Senator, but it also would create a media swarm around the third-place finisher, whether Obama or Clinton, who would have to answer questions about why he or she finished third.

Most observers think Edwards has some latent strength in Nevada, which is scheduled to have its caucuses on the Saturday after Iowa’s, because of his support within organized labor. And he has obvious appeal in South Carolina, where he was born and which he won rather convincingly in 2004.

But nobody knows for sure how influential the Nevada caucuses will be (since New Hampshire is likely to be the national media’s focus after Iowa), and South Carolina has two major problems for Edwards. First, he faces a very different field this time, since Obama and Clinton have appeal in the state that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the Rev. Al Sharpton and retired Gen. Wesley Clark did not. And second, the Palmetto State primary could be anticlimactic if one Democrat wins both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Obviously, fundraising questions surround Edwards since both Clinton and Obama would seem to be able to raise in excess of $100 million this year for their campaigns. And while Edwards’ experience in the presidential arena undoubtedly is an asset, he is not the fresh face that he was in his previous race.

Some criticize Edwards for “moving left” this cycle, a characterization that allies of the former Senator say is unfair. Edwards’ supporters argue that his views haven’t changed. That may be so, but the perception that his message is more explicitly liberal this time can’t be ignored.

Edwards’ international experience is no greater now than it was during his previous run, but he gets credit from Democrats for quickly saying that his vote giving the president authority to use force against Iraq was a mistake. However, the suggestion by consultant Bob Shrum that he made a political miscalculation in advising Edwards to vote for the measure — though Edwards quickly responded by dismissing the idea that his vote was politically calculated — seems to confirm the views of those observers who find Edwards too slick for their liking.

Edwards’ biggest problem right now may be the media’s tendency to define the Democratic race as a two-person contest, Clinton versus Obama. That makes fundraising tougher and may cause some Democrats in early states not to consider him as an alternative.

But the media attention to Elizabeth Edwards’ health, and to her husband’s commitment to her, is bound to boost Edwards’ presidential prospects short-term, creating both sympathy for him and an admiration about the relationship the Edwardses have, at least among Democrats.

I expect that Edwards will have time between now and mid-January to meet enough people and get his views out to be competitive. And if one of the frontrunners falters, he could be well-positioned to become an alternative. He remains the Democrat most likely to upset the Clinton-Obama apple cart.

What tier is John Edwards in? He’s either at the back of the top tier or between the top and second tiers. That certainly doesn’t make him a frontrunner, but it means, at least at this point, that he is in the ballgame.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 26, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Should Democrats Go After the Evangelical Vote?

By Stuart Rothenberg

For some Democrats, including political strategists Mara Vanderslice and Eric Sapp of Common Good Strategies, the answer to whether Democrats should pursue evangelical voters is a no-brainer.

Vanderslice, the founder of the political consulting firm that seeks to help Democratic officeholders and candidates appeal to religious — specifically evangelical — voters, and Sapp, a senior partner in the firm, believe their party can make crucial gains with religious voters by using the right language and posing the right questions. The two Democratic consultants have received plenty of attention, and they crow that all seven candidates they worked with in 2006 won.

A recent highly publicized spat within the evangelical community, pitting traditionalists who believe that issues such as abortion and marriage should drive evangelical political behavior against those who would add environmental, human rights and economic justice concerns to the evangelical agenda, also has some liberals thinking that the Republican hold on evangelical voters is weakening.

But despite what Vanderslice and Sapp believe, the numbers suggest that Democratic opportunities among evangelicals are very limited.

Aside from a very strange Washington Post piece shortly after the November elections that inexplicably exaggerated Democrats’ gains among evangelicals in the midterm elections, most observers have noted the minimal Democratic gains among white evangelicals in 2006.

The GOP percentage among white evangelicals dropped by 4 points from 2004 to 2006, from 74 percent to 70 percent, according to exit polls. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ showing inched up to 28 percent from 25 percent.

Given the strong Democratic year and the huge Republican advantage with white evangelicals, the Democrats’ gain was unimpressive. The 2006 midterm elections were so stunningly good for Democrats that all voter groups moved toward the Democratic Party last year.

In an Atlantic article about Common Good Strategies, Sapp observed, “At a fundamental level [evangelical ministers he talked with] just want candidates to give God his due, more than they care about specific issues.”

If you know anything about evangelicals, you know this is simply wrong. A candidate’s religiosity is not enough for most evangelicals, though it may cause evangelical voters to stop and consider the political hopeful’s agenda. Instead, evangelicals care about issues and where politicians stand on them.

In this regard, evangelicals are closer to Jews (particularly observant Jews) and African-Americans than to Irish or Italian voters who already have blended into the American melting pot. A politician can wear a kippah (a skullcap worn by observant Jews), eat knishes and say that “Fiddler on the Roof” is his favorite movie, and he still won’t get Jewish votes if he opposes Israel and says he wants to Christianize America.

Republicans have spent decades reaching out to the African-American community, but they have made only minimal gains with black voters, in part because of the party’s position on affirmative action and its overall conservatism.

Evangelicals, like blacks and Jews, have a strong group identity and see themselves as outsiders from the dominant social and political culture. Since all three groups tend to be wary of one of the parties, it takes more than words — and in the case of evangelicals, “giving God his due” — to pull them away from their allies.

Those mainstream evangelicals who talk increasingly about protecting the environment or addressing poverty are not discarding their traditional commitment to cultural issues such as abortion. They are not going to support a pro-choice, pro-gay rights Democrat because he or she is an environmentalist or wants the government to help the poor.

Some evangelicals, of course, have always thought that social justice issues were equally important. But that relatively small group has leaned Democratic anyway.

Mainstream evangelicals are much more likely to try to change the Republican Party, where they already have a seat at the table, and broaden the agenda from within than to support liberal Democrats who “give God his due” or reframe the abortion question to avoid using words like pro-choice.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is given a lot of credit for talking about the need to reduce the number of abortions in this country and for talking about her personal faith, but as long as she is still the candidate of EMILY’s List, the influential group seeking to recruit and elect pro-choice Democratic women, most evangelical voters will be deeply suspicious of her intentions and distrustful of her agenda.

Ultimately, for Jews, blacks and evangelicals, politics comes down to political trust.

Evangelicals may indeed be becoming more concerned about a broader array of issues, including the environment, but they aren’t doing so because liberals or Democrats are telling them to; instead, they are listening to mainstream members of their own community.

If Democrats nominate more candidates who hold conservative views on cultural issues, the party may be able to make inroads among evangelicals. Still, as long as the party’s fundamental attitude toward issues such as abortion and gay rights is what it is, Democrats would be much better off trying to lock up suburban moderates before they waste a lot of time trying to attract evangelical voters to their party.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 22, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, March 23, 2007

New Print Edition: California 11 & New York 29

The new March 23, 2007 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. The print edition comes out every two weeks and the content is not available online. Subscribers get in-depth analysis of the most competitive races in the country, as well as quarterly House and Senate ratings, and coverage of the gubernatorial races nationwide. To subscribe, simply click on the Google Checkout button on the website or send in a check.

Here is a sampling of this week's print issue.

California 11: Life Without the Bogeyman
By Nathan L. Gonzales

For months, environmental groups poured their time, energy, and dollars into defeating Republican Cong. Richard Pombo. Now, Democrat Jerry McNerney holds the title of congressman in California's 11th District.

McNerney certainly wasn't the first choice of many Democrats early in last year's race. But he overcame skepticism about his chances and, in a bad Republican year, sufficiently and successfully portrayed Pombo as a tool of special interests, in part by tying him to infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Now with Pombo out of the picture, it's unclear what role and how much attention outside groups will invest in the race. Republicans readily explain the 2006 loss as a referendum on Pombo, and they are confident that with a candidate like former state Assemblyman Dean Andal, they can pull the seat back into their column.

The primary is still a year away, but this should be a hot race in the Central Valley all the way through the general election. It will make district residents miss those Manteca Waterslides.

Subscribe for the rest of the story.

New York 29: The Bitter Taste of a Narrow Loss

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Democrat Eric Massa is one of growing number of candidates on both sides of the aisle aiming to overcome their losses last November with a successful run for Congress in 2008.

Amazingly, Republican Cong. Randy Kuhl actually increased his percentage from 2004, in the face of a terrible political environment for Republicans nationally and in the Empire State. But his 52%-48% victory over Massa in 2006 wasn't enough to scare off the Democrats, particularly in a state like New York, where Democrats seem to believe every seat belongs in their column.

There's no guarantee that Massa will be the nominee in 2008, but he's already announced and staking his claim to a rematch. Kuhl sits in the most Republican district in New York, but his own lack-luster fundraising, less than spectacular campaigns, and so-so polling numbers make him a target, at least for the near future.

Because national Democrats failed to invest any significant money into the 2006 race, the "what if" scenario continues to haunt them, making it more likely the district will see a greater Democratic commitment this cycle.

Subscribe for the rest of the story.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Was ’06 a Starting Point for Democrats or Was It Their High-water Mark?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Click here for the accompanying Close Calls chart.

We are just a couple of months into the 2008 election cycle, but already House targets for next year are being thrown about wildly, with the usual supportive demographic and electoral data.

Unfortunately, all numbers aren’t equally useful in discovering who is at serious risk of losing in 2008 and who isn’t. Context is necessary and most often decisive.

Long-term demographic shifts are crucial in understanding how our political system is evolving and what challenges the parties face. It matters a great deal if white Southerners are changing their voting patterns, or if a group, such as Hispanics or younger voters, is turning out to vote at a higher rate.

But demographic changes don’t occur overnight, and abnormal elections can seem to produce dramatic demographic shifts that aren’t really dramatic at all. Abnormal elections also produce odd, and frequently misleading, vote totals.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) is now arguing that many suburbs are moving away from their traditional Republican bent and toward the Democrats. I’m certainly not going to disagree with him, since I recently wrote about the GOP’s problems in Bergen County, N.J., a prime example of the Republican Party’s problems in suburbia.

And yes, many of the suburban districts that the DCCC chairman cites as targets in 2008, including those held currently by Republican Reps. Mark Kirk (Illinois’ 10th), Mike Ferguson (New Jersey’s 7th), Jim Gerlach (Pennsylvania’s 6th), Christopher Shays (Connecticut’s 4th) and Joe Knollenberg (Michigan’s 9th), look increasingly tantalizing for Democrats.

So Van Hollen and the DCCC are right — but only to a point. The problem for handicappers is that the ’06 results may well demonstrate just the opposite of what the DCCC chairman is arguing: how difficult it will be for Democrats to win those districts next time.

The fundamental question is whether November’s results constitute a starting point for calculating additional Democratic opportunities in 2008 or, conversely, whether those results mark the Democrats’ high-water mark in an aberrant election year.

Democrats will argue that many of their near-miss challengers came close without much national financial support, and that many of those candidates had relatively little political experience. You can be sure that the DCCC will argue that if those same challengers run again, they will be much stronger candidates. Just as important, the DCCC may be able to recruit better-credentialed candidates for those same districts in 2008, and that also will put the incumbent Republicans at greater risk.

Those are both good points, and I accept them readily. But it still doesn’t guarantee that Democrats are going to take over any of those districts in which they came close in 2006. In fact, history suggests that, except in a few cases, the Democratic near-misses last year are not going to perform better, or as well, in 2008.

Probably the best way to show the Democrats’ challenge next year is to look at what happened in 1996, when Republicans made the same kind of argument about allegedly vulnerable Democrats that Democrats are making today about Republicans who had a close call in November.

The accompanying table lists 46 Democrats who were elected in 1994 with 55 percent of the vote or less. Two years later, with Republicans salivating at their presumed opportunities and making a major effort to win most of those seats, Democrats retained 41 of those districts. Only two Democratic incumbents seeking re-election (out of 38) went down to defeat, while three other Democratic open seats flipped to the GOP.

Let’s take a look at a few 1994/1996 re-matches to make the point even more clearly. Michigan Rep. Sander Levin (D) was held to 52 percent by GOP challenger John Pappageorge in 1994, but two years later Levin won with 57.4 percent. Alabama Rep. Bud Cramer (D) squeezed by Wayne Parker (R) in 1994 with 50.5 percent. Two years later, Cramer drew 55.7 percent.

In 1994, California Democratic Rep. Jane Harman won re-election with a scant 48 percent of the vote against Susan Brooks (R). Two years later, against Brooks, Harman was re-elected with 52.5 percent. Remember former Minnesota Democratic Rep. Bill Luther? He beat Republican Tad Jude by 550 votes in 1994 (49.9 percent to 49.7 percent). Two years later, Luther beat Jude again, this time by almost 35,000 votes, with 55.8 percent.

Maybe the best example of this phenomenon occurred in what was then California’s 24th district. In 1994, then-Rep. Tony Beilenson (D) barely held off GOP challenger Rich Sybert by about 3,500 votes, 49.4 percent to 47.5 percent. Two years later, Sybert was back, but Beilenson wasn’t. Democrats nominated Brad Sherman, an accountant whom, I expect, would acknowledge that he is not known for his flamboyance or charisma. But that didn’t deter district voters or Sherman, who held the seat for his party with 49.4 percent (the same percentage as Beilenson) to Sybert’s 43.6 percent.

The 1994 election constituted a Republican tidal wave, which means that, by definition, it was an aberration. Two years later, the political environment returned to normal, and Democrats who looked ripe for the taking because of their narrow 1994 victories suddenly looked stronger.

In fact, those Democrats were stronger, in part because they had survived the difficult year and in part because the Republican challengers weren’t as strong as they seemed without a stiff wind at their backs.

Don’t get me wrong. History suggests Democrats will pick off a few of those districts that they narrowly lost last year, especially if some of them become open.

In 1996, one Democrat who survived a close call in 1994 lost in a re-match: Missouri Rep. Harold Volkmer (against GOP challenger Kenny Hulshof). The other Democratic incumbent to lose after a narrow win in 1994 was freshman Rep. Mike Ward (Ky.), who lost to Anne Northup after squeezing past Susan Stokes two years earlier.

Democrats had almost an ideal political environment in 2006. The election was a midterm contest with an unpopular president, an even more unpopular war, a GOP that was damaged by ethics issues and a Republican Congress that was not held in high regard by voters. In addition, independent voters, who often split roughly evenly between the parties, went overwhelmingly Democratic.

Could the political environment favor Democrats as strongly next year? Of course. Is it reasonable to assume that 2008 will favor Democrats at least as strongly as last year’s midterm did? Probably not.

Democratic strategists talk as if 2006 was a starting point for the party’s 2008 candidates, but it is not very likely that voters who stuck with Republican Congressional candidates in 2006 will vote for Democratic House challengers in 2008. Or, put another way, if Democrats couldn’t beat Shays, and GOP Reps. Dave Reichert (Washington’s 8th) and Jean Schmidt (Ohio’s 2nd) last cycle, they may not be able to beat them next time.

If the 2008 contest is another referendum on the Iraq War and President Bush, Democrats are likely to do very well again. And yes, presidential years do bring out additional voters, and those “casual” voters — many of them independents — may well see Democrats as the party of change. Democratic candidates could get the support of many of those voters.

But surely it is too soon — and overly simplistic — merely to list 2006 vote results and present them as some sort of inevitable starting point for Democratic challengers who cut into normal GOP margins last cycle. And if history is any guide, many ’06 Democratic repeaters will find the going much rougher next year than they expect.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 19, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Impact of "Hillary 1984"

By Stuart Rothenberg

Nobody should be surprised by the overreaction to the Hillary Clinton/Apple pseudo TV spot posted on YouTube. Reporters (and political consultants) simply love anything new and creative, even if its political impact is non-existent.

The ad, fashioned after an Apple ad from 1984, got tons of airtime earlier this week as the cable networks and talking heads buzzed about how creative it was, how technology is changing politics and what it all means for the future.

Here’s a news flash: the "ad" will have no political impact. Entertaining: Absolutely. Creative? Certainly. An interesting example of modern technology? Sure. But the ad won’t change any votes, and it is unlikely to create or re-make impressions of Senators Clinton or Barack Obama.

Interestingly, more people will see the ad on or hear about it from "traditional" cable or broadcast television networks than will watch it on YouTube. So if the ad had any impact anyway, it would be because of the reach of traditional forms of media, which played the spot repeatedly.

But at the end of the day, the YouTube ad will be a footnote about the campaign. It's yet another example of the tactical nature of this 2008 campaign, and while tactics can and do matter, the Democratic race will be decided in Iowa and New Hampshire by a relative handful of Democratic participants, not by Washington, D.C. insiders who are all aflutter with the latest hip happening.

Technology obviously changes campaigns, and one day YouTube, Facebook and the Internet overall may determine who wins and who doesn't. But for the 2008 cycle, it’s still those dreary "old media" that matter, no matter how many people want to get ahead of the curve and how creative and interesting the new technologies of the day.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on March 20, 2007.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Want a Presidential Nomination? Then Run for It!

By Stuart Rothenberg

Ladies and gentlemen, tonight the role of Hamlet, previously played by former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D), will be played by Chuck Hagel.

After a few days of frenzied speculation about whether Hagel would seek the Republican nomination for president, the Nebraska Senator announced on Monday that he would make a decision later in the year. So we have yet another announcement about an announcement. How exciting.

Anyway, Hagel’s “non-announcement” means you can add his name to the list of names already circulating as possible late entrants into the 2008 presidential race, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former Vice President Al Gore.

While Hagel still dangles his potential candidacy tantalizingly, Gingrich has been more explicit about his timeline. He’ll make a decision in September about whether to enter the fray. Gore, on the other hand, hasn’t openly encouraged speculation of his candidacy, but he hasn’t exactly ruled it out in a Sherman-esque way.

As entertaining as all of this gamesmanship is, it’s about time for someone to state the obvious: If you aren’t in the race very soon, your chances of being nominated are nil.

Gingrich’s strategy of keeping his name out there until late in the summer (or later), after which he’ll make a decision about whether to run, is about as flaky as anything I’ve heard recently.

By the time Independence Day rolls around, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) and others will have spent months running around the country, raising money, wooing primary voters and caucus attendees, putting together county organizations in key early states, and building a national network of supporters.

Gingrich seems to think that many Republicans aren’t in love with any of the GOP frontrunners, and he is correct. But he is wrong if he thinks they are in love with him. The idea that rank-and-file Republicans are waiting for the former Speaker to arrive on his white horse to save his party might make for a nice made-for-television movie, but if so I’d suggest it would be more appropriate for the SciFi Channel than HBO.

Gingrich shows up in third or fourth place in many national and early state polls because many Republicans remember him from his years in Congress and from his appearances on television. But that doesn’t mean that most voters remember him in an unabashedly positive way.

Voters want to see a candidate’s passion for office, and that means going out there and working for the nomination. By sitting on the sidelines for so long, Gingrich is saying that he isn’t all that passionate about the presidency. And his strategy of waiting to make a decision reeks of arrogance.

Say what you want about Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Joseph Biden (Del.), and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), but at least they are putting themselves in a position to catch fire by running real campaigns.

And if electability is really as important as many think, a Gingrich candidacy is a non-starter. As a general election nominee, Gingrich would be a train wreck.

Hagel’s non-decision may well have something to do with Congressional staffer-turned actor-turned-Senator-turned-actor Fred Thompson’s recent announcement that he is being urged to enter the GOP race. Thompson and Hagel were two of McCain’s biggest boosters in the Senate when the Arizonan ran for his party’s nomination in 2000, and it is difficult to imagine a race with enough room for both of them.

Whatever he and Thompson are thinking, it’s getting late for new entries into the race. Given that a lot of political talent already has signed up with one of the presidential campaigns, and that fundraisers and contributors already are choosing a hopeful, time is running out for any Republican who thinks that he can put together the kind of presidential campaign that can win.

Hagel’s indecision is another problem in itself. Presidential elections invariably are about leadership, and hemming and hawing about whether you are going to run is not a sign of strength or leadership.

On the Democratic side, the situation is even worse for a late entry. Democrats have at least three serious contenders for their party’s nomination, and there is little sign of a vacuum in that contest.

With former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) carrying the liberal/progressive banner, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) presenting himself as the hope of the future and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) rallying a wide array of supporters in the party, it’s unclear why anyone (other than a Hollywood celebrity, that is) would think that the Democratic Party needs Al Gore.

As in the GOP race, Democratic fundraisers, strategists and key local activists in Iowa and New Hampshire already have chosen sides. Gore certainly has a following on blogs and in Hollywood, and his entry into the race certainly would make a splash and propel him into the top tier. But Gore would have to fight it out for his party’s nomination, and that’s not something that he shows signs of wanting to do.

The calendar says it is early in the 2008 presidential race, but insiders know otherwise. Activity has been under way for months, and it will pick up even more in the next few weeks. Anyone who is serious about running better jump in now. And even that may be too late.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 15, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Presidential Race on Speed

By Stuart Rothenberg

The following are excerpts from an op-ed piece in the Sunday, March 18, 2007 in the Los Angeles Times.

At this point in past presidential cycles, much of the campaign activity would be going on behind the scenes. Operatives would be focused on raising money, putting together state organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire and generally building a national campaign. But media coverage is already suffocating, with cable television networks covering the race as if it's entering the stretch run and bloggers instantly commenting on the daily utterings of the candidates.
And here's a bit more:
Campaign operatives say all the media attention pushed some candidates to enter the race earlier than planned — nobody expected Clinton to announce her candidacy in January — and to pack their schedules with events and appearances at the get-go. They know that if their candidate isn't on the campaign trail, reporters will cover those who are.

Bigger events and more appearances mean more pressure and greater potential for controversy, which could easily lead to burnout for candidates and operatives alike.

"When you are selling yourself as a rock-star candidate, the concerts better be damn good," said Steve Murphy, who is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's media consultant and who has been active in Democratic presidential politics since 1976, including a stint as Dick Gephardt's campaign manager in 2004.

Most of the media coverage, of course, isn't about issues, the candidates' voting records or their effectiveness in office. It is either about the candidates' personal lives or what insiders call "process" — the campaigns' strategies and tactics.

You can read the whole column here.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

GOP Presidential Race Looks Unpredictably Unpredictable in ’08

By Stuart Rothenberg

Each presidential election cycle is unique, but you can count on certain developments every time. There are candidate boomlets, questions about the frontrunners, talk of deadlocked conventions and multiple scenarios of various credibility. Scenarios are a lot like opinions or blogs — pretty much everybody has one.

But at least I’m usually reasonably comfortable with one scenario that I can ride either all of the way to the conventions or until it becomes clear that I need to modify or even alter my assumptions. Until now, that is.

The Republican race has me totally flummoxed.

Arizona Sen. John McCain should be the favorite and the frontrunner in the race for his party’s nomination. I certainly thought he was, but I’m not sure right now.

McCain earned the right to be regarded as the next Republican hopeful in line for his party’s nomination, and in the past 50 years or so that’s been a very good predictor of the nomination.

He ran well in the 2000 GOP battle, and since then he has been supportive of the man who beat him, George W. Bush. A number of important Bush political operatives and fundraisers have signed on with McCain, and the Senator has the experience, stature, demonstrated fundraising ability and personal story to be the clear leader for his party’s nomination.

Moreover, McCain worked hard for Republican candidates in the past few elections, including those in places where Bush would not have been welcomed. And while the Arizona Republican may not be everyone’s definition of a loyal soldier in the partisan wars, he certainly should have earned at least the grudging respect of party activists for his efforts on behalf of the president and the GOP.

Instead, McCain is having trouble being accepted by conservatives, who see him as neither entirely dependable nor entirely conservative. Even though he is a nationally known political figure who has run for president, McCain trails a liberal former New York City mayor for the GOP nomination in national polls. And he trails him consistently. The margin isn’t all that close in recent surveys.

We are still many months before the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire really get down to the task of picking presidential nominees, and McCain has not begun his 2008 campaign in earnest. Given that, these early polls are hardly predictive. Still, McCain’s standing has to give his supporters pause, and I’m suddenly unsure if he is indeed the frontrunner in the Republican race, as I once thought.

Then there is Rudy Giuliani, the man who leads in all Republican polls. Unless all of the political analysis about the Republican Party over the past 20 years has been wrong, Giuliani shouldn’t be able to win the GOP nomination. I understand the argument that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything, but even that argument undermines the conventional wisdom about the political parties, the role of social conservatives (and evangelicals) in the GOP and the nature of the party.

Most reporters and analysts have agreed on the power of conservatives within the Republican Party and on the importance of a social issues litmus test for nominees. Even if past GOP nominees haven’t made abortion their No. 1 issue, they have parroted the conservative line. A Giuliani nomination would undermine all of those news stories that have portrayed the GOP as an intolerant party that is prisoner to its most conservative and most religious elements.

How intolerant can the GOP be if it nominates a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control thrice-married New Yorker for the presidency?

But while Giuliani’s numbers are high now, will they remain that way when he comes under detailed scrutiny by the media and by caucus attendees and primary voters in Iowa and South Carolina? (Giuliani is better positioned for New Hampshire, since independents can vote in the state’s primaries and religious issues have less importance there.)

I’m far from sure.

Then there is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He is smart, articulate, telegenic and oozes leadership. But he’s changed his stands on hot-button issues over the years, and his Mormon religion will be a problem among some key Republican constituencies. Plus, his foreign policy and national security credentials are thin, at best.

In other words, he has his own problems in trying to appeal to GOP primary voters and caucus attendees.

Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.)? Each is not without appeal, but both have critics and so far no way to raise the tens of millions of dollars needed to make a real race. Anti-tax activists in the Republican Party are equally anti-Huckabee, and the former governor of Arkansas told me months ago that he agrees with Bush’s position on immigration.

Interestingly, I’ve asked a number of thoughtful political consultants, from both parties, who they think is most likely to be the GOP nominee and who is the least likely. So far, Giuliani is seen as the most likely and McCain as the least. That’s not a scientific sample or a reliable poll. But that kind of anecdotal evidence has me more confused than ever.

Of course, none of this includes Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), an anti-Iraq War Republican who is conservative on issues but has the outsider/reformer image that John McCain once had but is now losing.

If you aren’t confused yet, you aren’t paying attention. This is a race that is not merely up for grabs. It’s unusually unpredictable. The only thing I’m sure of right now is that the Republicans will have a nominee at some point next year.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 12, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Monday, March 12, 2007

For the Thousandth Time: Don’t Call Them ‘Push Polls’

By Stuart Rothenberg

I probably sound like a broken record, but I’ve had it with people who still don’t know the difference between political polls and advocacy telephone calls.

Polls are methodologically rigorous public opinion surveys of generally 500 to 1,000 people intended to learn about and measure voters’ opinions and test possible campaign messages. Advocacy telephone calls, on the other hand, are made to tens of thousands of people and are intended to create or change opinion.

It really isn’t all that difficult to understand the difference. Any high school graduate ought to be able to figure it out. That’s why I find it so frustrating that journalists and politicians don’t make distinctions. This year again, a bipartisan group of Members of Congress has introduced legislation to “prevent push polls.”

The term “push poll” never should have entered our lexicon, since it does nothing but confuse two very different and totally unrelated uses of the telephone.

As I have argued every year for the past five and apparently will have to continue doing until I have taken my last breath, push polls are really advocacy calls aimed at thousands of recipients. They are like television or radio ads, except they are delivered over the telephone. They seek to convey positive or negative information to influence a voter’s final vote decision.

Advocacy calls are not, in any shape or form, public opinion surveys.

Phone banks established to deliver advocacy messages are designed to make large numbers of calls and have no interest in getting responses from those called, except possibly for identifying supporters, opponents or the undecided for the purpose of deciding whether those people should receive still more advocacy or get-out-the-vote calls.

Hiring a firm to do 500 or 800 advocacy calls in a Congressional district or state — where thousands or tens of thousands or even millions of voters are going to go to the polls — would be idiotic, since it wouldn’t accomplish what advocacy calls are trying to do, which is change opinion.

Why do I get all hot and bothered about this? Because referring to advocacy calls as push polls adds to public cynicism and, more importantly, discredits a legitimate survey research approach.

The new legislative push really is no more than an updated effort. Two years ago, Wisconsin Rep. Tom Petri (R) introduced the ill-named Push Poll Disclosure Act of 2005, and he has done so again in the 110th Congress.

Petri may not be intentionally adding to the confusion between advocacy calls and public opinion surveys, but he certainly is doing so by constantly referring to push polls and even putting those words in the title of the bill.

Petri seems concerned about telephone calls that include very negative information about a candidate for office. This kind of information can be part of an advocacy telephone call or part of a legitimate poll. When they are in a real survey, they are known as “push questions,” because they seek to measure which questions actually push voter sentiment and which issues can be used by a candidate to win a race.

Push questions are not the same thing as push polls. Push questions, which are included in a survey of only 500 to 1,000 respondents, are a legitimate part of a public opinion poll that seeks to test effective messages.

My guess is that someone who didn’t know very much about survey research — I’m putting my money on some twentysomething who worked in the media — heard about push questions and incorrectly confused them with advocacy calls, creating the illogical term “push polls.”

Serious polls can include push questions that contain some explosive or even incorrect information, but that doesn’t make them advocacy calls. Testing possible messages is a legitimate survey research function, and as long as the question is asked of a small sample and seeks to get a response to know whether the issue is useful in an election, it really doesn’t matter how negative the message is.

Congress certainly ought not to interfere with legitimate pollsters’ (and I’m including incompetent pollsters here, too) efforts to accumulate data or test messages, no matter how negative they might be.

If Congress wants to require a disclaimer on advocacy calls, the way it has done on TV spots, that’s certainly reasonable. But messing with polls would be a terrible idea.

Wisely, in defining the problem, the Petri proposal seems to focus on the number of calls made, which is an important distinction between polls and advocacy calls. But throwing around phrases like push polls doesn’t make me very confident that Members of Congress know what they are talking about.

A first step toward sounding smart might be to change the language of any bill that seeks to regulate advocacy telephone calls. It also might be nice if members of the media banned “push polls” from their vocabulary.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 8, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Friday, March 09, 2007

New Print Edition: Florida 16 & North Carolina 8

The new March 9, 2007 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. Here's a sample of the stories in this issue. To subscribe, just go to the website and click on the Google Checkout button to pay by credit card or you can send in a check.

Florida 16: Instant Contest
By Nathan L. Gonzales

Rational Republicans knew they were in for a rough 2006 more than a year ago, since President George W. Bush's plummeting job approval ratings and the war in Iraq made GOP control of the House and the Senate increasingly tenuous. But just as voters were focusing on the general election, a scandal broke in South Florida. That's when things turned from bad to worse.

In late September, the story of Cong. Mark Foley (R) and a series of improper emails and instant messages to former congressional pages began to unfold. Foley quickly resigned his office on September 29, but the subsequent "blame game" and finger pointing among the House Republican Leadership simply added to the woes of the party.

While Foley's name remained on the ballot in Florida's 16th district, Republicans quickly rallied around state Rep. Joe Negron (R) and the motto "Punch Foley for Joe," in an effort to salvage the seat. In the end, Democratic businessman Tim Mahoney prevailed, but his slim 49%-48% margin was remarkable under the circumstances.

Now, the district is one of the Republicans' top five targets nationwide at this very early stage in the election cycle. And a handful of GOP candidates are vying for the opportunity to pull the seat back into their party's column.

The rest of the story includes the lay of the land and candidate bios as well as a look at both the Republican primary and the general election.

North Carolina 8: Second Chances?

Go ahead and engrave Robin Hayes's name in stone on Democratic target lists. Since his initial election in 1998, Democrats have droned on about the impending defeat of the North Carolina congressman. After casting the deciding vote on a free trade bill in 2001, the Republican congressman has been considered endangered. Yet he continues to win reelection.

But 2008 might actually be different. Hayes is in for another tough fight, and his fate could well depend both on the national environment and his own ability to out-campaign and out-work his repeat opponent.

Last cycle, the early favorite for the Democratic nomination dropped out, and national Democrats removed the 8th District from their target lists. Meanwhile, high school teacher Larry Kissell mounted a grassroots campaign and came just 329 votes shy of finally knocking off the congressman.

Even after gaining 30 seats last cycle, Democrats are kicking themselves for leaving this one on the table and are working early and often to help Kissell in his rematch bid. There is a small chance other Democrats will get into the race, but Kissell's performance last year makes him the early favorite for the nomination among local and national Democrats.

Hayes may have survived the worst political landscape of his congressional career, but the population growth in North Carolina, and the 8th District, may pose a different challenge.

The rest of the story includes the lay of the land and candidate bios as well as a look at the general election.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Maine Senate: Susan Collins May Be Vulnerable, but Don’t Underestimate Her

By Stuart Rothenberg

If you listen to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) talk for a few minutes, you are likely to think that she doesn’t have the toughness and quickness to hold off her likely Democratic challenger, Rep. Tom Allen.

Well, stop thinking that way.

I don’t know whether Collins will be able to swim against a potentially strong anti-President Bush, anti-Iraq War current in 2008, but at this point, I’m certainly not going to bet against her.

Collins was the third moderate Republican woman elected to the Senate from Maine in a 30-year period, following in the footsteps of the late Margaret Chase Smith (elected to her final term in 1966) and Olympia Snowe (first elected in 1994), who currently occupies the state’s other Senate seat.

A native of Caribou, Collins worked for two GOP moderates, former Maine Gov. John McKernan and former Sen. Bill Cohen, before taking a job as Massachusetts’ deputy treasurer. She returned to her home state to run for governor in 1994, finishing a disappointing third behind Joe Brennan (D) and the winner, Independent Angus King.

Two years later, she ran for Cohen’s open Senate seat. Her prospects didn’t look good, but she won a three-way primary for the Republican nomination and went on to defeat Brennan, 49.2 percent to 43.9 percent in the 1996 general election.

More notable is that Collins drew 298,422 votes in that race at the same time that her party’s presidential candidate, then-Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.), was drawing just 186,378 votes (30.8 percent). Collins ran an incredible 18.3 points ahead of Dole and garnered 112,000 more votes than he did.

Collins’ strength that year, in an open seat and a hostile environment for Republicans, suggests that she ran a good race and had considerable personal appeal. It also confirmed the state’s reputation for independence.

Six years after she was first elected to the Senate, Collins went on to pummel 2002 Senate opponent Chellie Pingree (D), who was then a state legislator and widely viewed as a credible challenger.

Collins won that second term with 58.4 percent, winning all five of the state’s largest counties — Androscoggin (Lewiston-Auburn), Cumberland (Portland), Kennebec (Augusta and Waterville), Penobscot (Bangor and Orono) and York (Kennebunk, Biddeford and Saco). In the presidential election two years earlier, Bush won only one of those counties (Penobscot), and he did so with less than 50 percent of the vote. Collins won York and Penobscot, the most Republican of the five, with more than 60 percent of the vote.

If Allen runs, he almost certainly will be a threat to the Senator all the way until Election Day.

A former Rhodes Scholar with an undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College and a law degree from Harvard, Allen is serving his sixth term in Congress. He served on the non-partisan Portland City Council, including a term as mayor (appointed by his fellow councilmembers).

In his initial Congressional race, Allen won a heavily contested primary against Dale McCormick, an openly gay liberal state Senator who helped found the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance. The primary was widely portrayed as a test of ideology and activism, with Allen the establishment and the moderate candidate and McCormick the insurgent and the liberal.

McCormick counted on her ideological message and intensely loyal base, and the outcome was extremely close. But Allen won the nomination 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent and went on to handily defeat the sitting Congressman, Jim Longley (R).

Since elected, Allen’s liberal and organized labor interest group ratings have been at or near 100 percent. National Journal’s ratings place him as the 86th most liberal Member of the House in 2006, sandwiching him between Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) and Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.). In contrast, Collins ranked as the 46th most liberal Member of the Senate in 2006.

Once a reliable GOP bastion, Maine now at least leans Democratic. While Republicans control both of the state’s Senate seats, Democrats sit in both House seats, occupy the governor’s office and hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature (though their majority in the state Senate is a paper-thin one seat).

The last Republican to carry the state for president was George H.W. Bush in 1988. Since then, the best GOP presidential showing was in 2004, when incumbent Bush won just 44 percent of Maine’s vote.

Collins and Snowe seem to have discovered the formula for winning elections in Maine. Both of the moderate women come from the state’s 2nd district — Snowe represented it in Congress, while Collins hails from it — and have been able to rally support in that more conservative part of the state, while at the same time neutralizing some of the Democrats’ advantage in the normally more liberal 1st district.

Democrats no doubt will attack Collins for supporting the Bush agenda, as well as for breaking a two-term pledge. Some of those attacks may stick, but she will be able to cite a number of high-profile instances where she broke with the president or her GOP colleagues, including her “not guilty” votes on the articles of impeachment of former President Bill Clinton, her vote against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and her generally moderate views on abortion.

Though it is early, Collins’ electoral fate seems tied to whether Maine voters see her reelection as a referendum on Bush and the Iraq War or as a referendum on Collins herself. Since she has been able to run far ahead of other GOP candidates in the past, and since Bush won’t be the party standard-bearer during the 2008 general election, Collins begins with the edge. But Democrats will come after her aggressively, and she must expect a difficult contest.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 5, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Kentucky Governor: Fletcher to Hit Airwaves

Embattled Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) is set to launch a statewide media blitz next week in his effort to win renomination and ultimately reelection.

The governor’s first term has been marred by investigations into his administration’s hiring practices, resulting in Fletcher drawing two primary challengers, former Cong. Anne Northup and wealthy businessman Billy Harper.

A February 9-11 SurveyUSA automated poll conducted for television stations in Cincinnati and Louisville showed Fletcher with 36% approve/59% disapprove job ratings among all voters and a slim 33%-31% edge over Northup in the GOP primary in a March 3-5 SurveyUSA poll. A January 28-29 Public Opinion Strategies poll conducted for Northup showed her even with the governor at 39% in the primary. Most recently, Fletcher’s own lieutenant governor has been publicly critical of the governor’s time in office.

While Harper has personal money to burn and went on the airwaves last year, Fletcher’s cash advantage over Northup (who lost reelection last November) is allowing him to get out early in an attempt to right the ship.

Fletcher is scheduled to go on the air on Tuesday, March 13, with a 60-second ad, at a total cost of about $392,000. The buy includes broadcast and cable in the Louisville (900+ gross ratings points), Bowling Green (700+ points), and Lexington (500+ points) markets, which covers approximately 65% of the state. The ad is also scheduled to air on cable only in the Paducah, Cincinnati (OH), Charleston (WV), and Evansville (IN) markets that overlap the state.

The primary is set for May 22. Candidates must reach 40% in order to avoid a June 26 runoff. Seven Democrats are vying to be their party’s nominee in November. If Fletcher is the GOP nominee, Democrats view Kentucky as a top takeover opportunity. And even more than a few Republicans think only Northup has a chance to hold the governorship.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on March 6, 2007.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Too Much Smoke and Mirrors in Vilsack Campaign

By Stuart Rothenberg

If businessmen acted the way some candidates, campaign managers and press secretaries do, many of them would wind up in jail. After all, lying to, or at least intentionally misleading, investors and regulators can get you in big trouble.

But in politics, many of us have become so accustomed to being deceived by politicians, staff and campaigns that we don’t scream when it happens. We roll our eyes (or at least I do, as many people apparently have noticed), say that it’s part of the game and move on.

I’m not talking about obvious political criminal activity — the kind that landed former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), one-time Providence, R.I., Republican-turned-Independent Mayor Buddy Cianci and the late Rep. William Tweed (D-N.Y.) in the slammer — or of all of those gray areas in politics, including questions that are a matter of opinion or interpretation, such as whether a candidate has a good chance of winning a particular election.

Instead, I’m talking about a couple of events that occurred over the past month. I use them only as an example, since I think it happens far too often in politics.

On Jan. 29, the presidential campaign of former two-term Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) sent out a news release titled “Political Outsider Takes in More than $1.1 million in Last 7 Weeks of 2006.” Fair enough. Campaigns often tout their fundraising, and that’s their business as long as the numbers are kosher. As far as I know, those in the late January release were.

The release then quoted one of Vilsack’s press people as saying, “Tom Vilsack proved in the last seven weeks of 2006 that he’ll have the money to campaign across America in 2007 and win the Democratic nomination in 2008.”

A bit later in the same release, the same press spokesman is quoted as saying, “Vilsack’s early fundraising success ensures that our campaign will be able to win Iowa and then the Democratic nomination.”

When I read this release I immediately wrote something about it on my Web site, panning it for being over the top and for being little more than a transparent attempt to deliver a message in the context of a news release about campaign fundraising.

But my view of that release changed late last week when Vilsack announced that he was ending his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, less than one month after the campaign was crowing about fundraising.

The reason for Vilsack’s exit? Money. Just money. Not family. Not some silly excuse. Just a refreshingly straight-on acknowledgement that he couldn’t raise the money to compete with the better-funded candidates for the nomination.

“We weren’t able to raise the resources,” Vilsack said in the video thank you on his Web site, adding, “Money became the dominant issue. We simply didn’t have enough of it.”

I have reason to believe that at least some people at the Vilsack campaign were aware that it was having significant financial problems as early as late January, about the time the Vilsack news release went out boasting of the candidate’s fundraising and guaranteeing that the campaign would have the money to compete in Iowa.

My guess (well, it’s more than a guess) is that the Jan. 29 release was part of a “Hail Mary” strategy — that included an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on Feb. 15 and the release on Feb. 9 of the names of 1,100 “Iowans who have publicly agreed to caucus for Vilsack” — to get the former Iowa governor some attention and to help him boost his fundraising in an effort to stave off what was starting to look like the death throes of his campaign.

If that’s what happened, then I’d argue that the Vilsack campaign crossed the line by asserting that fundraising was going well and that the candidate had the resources for the long haul.

I’m certainly not suggesting that the campaign should have or was obligated to put out a release saying that it was in financial trouble, or that it couldn’t put out a very narrowly written release noting its fundraising totals and comparing them with candidate fundraising in the previous cycle.

But the Jan. 29 release went far beyond that. It was boastful about Vilsack’s fundraising success, and it asserted that the campaign would have the resources to compete in Iowa and beyond. Because of that, it was misleading.

I understand that campaigns are under incredible pressure to produce, whether in fundraising, positive political coverage or polling. And terminating a campaign is always painful. While Vilsack never was regarded as a top-tier contender for his party’s nomination, he was treated as a credible candidate and is seen as someone who might be in the vice presidential mix next year.

But trying to keep a campaign on life support for a miracle can lead to misjudgments. I suspect that’s what happened with Vilsack’s fundraising memo. Candidates and people who work for candidates ought to understand that they do themselves no favor by misleading journalists, contributors and, yes, even TV hosts about their prospects. Trust, like a mind, is a terrible thing to waste.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 1, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

How Much Will the ’08 Race Turn on Race?

By Stuart Rothenberg

During the past three weeks, three different African-American political insiders have commented to me that I have mistakenly failed to discuss “race” when talking about Sen. Barack Obama’s prospects for 2008.

They all thought that the Illinois Democrat’s race is an impossible burden for him and makes him unelectable in the general election even if he were to win the Democratic nomination.

It’s true, I think, that many of us who write about politics — and as a group we are overwhelmingly white — have concluded that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) religion is a greater impediment to his presidential hopes than is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) gender or Obama’s race.

That’s been my assumption for months, in part because national public opinion surveys have shown that more Americans say they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon than for a woman or an African-American, and in part because the nature of the presidential nominating process elevates the importance of certain states and of certain demographic groups in those key states.

After all, if evangelical Christians prove to be unwilling to support a Mormon, it’s hard to see how Romney can do well in Iowa or South Carolina, two key early tests for the GOP nomination. And if he flops there, he probably can’t be nominated, let alone elected president.

But some in the black community remain deeply skeptical about Obama’s electability. Their view is simple: Whether those being surveyed about their willingness to vote for an African-American are deceiving themselves or intentionally misleading pollsters, a lot of white voters won’t vote for a black nominee.

There is, of course, something to this view. Political observers long ago concluded that African-American candidates often underperform among undecided voters, and polling in past races has exaggerated the strength of some black candidates.

But after re-examining my assumptions, talking to some thoughtful political veterans and considering the data, I remain convinced that Obama’s race is not an insurmountable problem for him.

First, let’s stipulate that there are still some people in this country who won’t vote for an African-American for any office. Second, let’s agree that there are plenty of states that a Democrat, white or black, is not going to carry in the 2008 presidential race. And third, let’s also note that race tends to be more of an issue in states with large black populations, and that happens to be in Southern states that no Democrat will win.

The question then is whether Obama can carry enough white voters in enough Democratic or politically competitive states to win 270 electoral votes. I think it’s possible. He wouldn’t need to carry South Carolina or Oklahoma or even Louisiana. He might need some combination of Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and/or Ohio — all states that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) lost in 2004 — but he wouldn’t need to carry a Deep South state or a bastion of Republicanism.

Ten African-Americans in the House, all Democrats, currently represent majority white districts, including two each in Florida, Georgia and Missouri. In addition, Julia Carson of Indiana, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Mel Watt of North Carolina and Gwen Moore of Wisconsin all represent majority white districts. Ellison’s district is only 10 percent black, while Carson’s is 26 percent and Moore’s is 28 percent.

Colorado has had two African-American lieutenant governors over the past 40 years, and in the late 1990s it had two black statewide officials at the same time (both Republicans).

African-American Thurbert Baker (D) has been elected and re-elected as Georgia’s attorney general, and Michael Thurmond has been elected twice as the state’s commissioner of labor. Baker ran far ahead of then-Sen. Max Cleland (D) and then-Gov. Roy Barnes (D) when each was going down to defeat in 2002. Republicans nominated African-Americans for governor last year in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts elected an African-American to the state’s top job.

For the moment, I have more concerns about Obama’s ability to win black support for the Democratic nomination than I do about his ability to get elected if nominated, especially since Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) have appeal in that community.

“Older African-Americans are more pessimistic about what the prospects are for black candidates,” said David Bositis, a senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and one of the most thoughtful and well-informed students of black political behavior and public opinion. That means they are likely to doubt Obama’s electability in 2008.

But what happens if Obama starts winning primaries? “If Obama comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire looking like a winner, there will be a substantial move of support to him in the African-American community,” Bositis predicted.

We all know that the Illinois Senator has considerable personal appeal, and white voters are likely to react far more favorably to him than to African-American political figures such as the Revs. Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. I believe he is electable under the right circumstances, which makes him no different than any other politician. That means he will win or lose because of his record, his campaign and his performance as a candidate.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 26, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.