Despite GOP’s pessimism, party may yet field a winner in ’08 White House race

There is considerable pessimism within Republican ranks about the party’s chances in the 2008 presidential election.
However, it is conceivable that a politically adroit Republican nominee could avoid negative associations with an unpopular administration, and have a significant chance of victory.

The political situation ahead of the 2008 presidential election is without recent historical precedent. It is the first ballot since 1952 that will not feature a sitting president or vice president. It is also the first election since 1896 where neither of the nominees will have strong links to the White House incumbent. Therefore, the normal political pattern in the United States — which might be described as a referendum on the “in-power” party against an “out-of-power” party — may not apply in the conventional manner (although the Democrats will do their best to apply it). These unusual conditions may help explain some of the contradictory messages in current polling data — and why the Republicans still have a real chance of victory.


Polling conundrum

In general, “generic” polling on voters’ party preferences strongly favors the Democrats, but specific polls — pitting particular Democratic candidates against Republicans — suggest the race will be tight. This unusual political mood is attributable to five main factors:

•Desire for change. There is a clear sentiment in the polls favoring “change.” When asked in general whether they would prefer to see a Democrat or a Republican win in November 2008, the unnamed Democrat has an edge of at least 12-15 percentage points. Yet when voters are asked to choose between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) or former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) on the Democratic side, and the Republican front-runners — Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani — nothing like the same political pattern emerges. These “head-to-head” polls are usually virtually tied or give Giuliani a slight edge over the leading Democrats.

•Avoiding Bush ties. This polling phenomenon is due, in part, to the fact that voters do not currently make a strong link between Giuliani and President Bush. Indeed, Giuliani is seen as personifying the more popular aspects of the Bush legacy (the immediate response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, for example) but not the more contentious elements (Iraq and its aftermath). McCain’s difficulties in the past six months appear to be because, having previously avoided association with the president, he has recently embraced Bush‘s troop “surge” strategy for Iraq.

•Unpopular president. The president’s approval ratings have been unusually poor for almost two years. Since mid-2005, they have moved within a comparatively narrow 29-36 percent band in mainstream surveys. There are few parallels for such an abysmal rating during a second presidential term, when (with the obvious exception of former President Richard Nixon) the occupant of the White House tends to become more personally popular at the same time that he becomes less politically effective. Furthermore, even Bush’s personal pollsters seem to expect that his ratings will remain at this low ebb for the rest of the year and into 2008. If he cannot achieve at least a 45 percent approval rating by next year, then the president will remain a liability for his party’s electoral prospects.

•Unpopular Congress. However, the Democrat-controlled Congress also receives poor ratings. In the weeks before the November 2006 midterm elections, polling approval ratings for Congress hovered in a 30-35 percent range. However, four months after the Democrats assumed control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the approval rating for Congress now stands at only 29 percent, according to the May 10-13 Gallup poll. Perhaps the best explanation for this poor rating is that the national “satisfaction rating” recorded in the same poll is only 29 percent — one of the lowest figures since 1979 — which reflects citizens’ negative view of all national institutions.

•Iraq albatross. Iraq is the primary cause of this national pessimism. Here too the public mood is more complicated (and fatalist) than conventionally understood. A clear majority of the public now views the war as a mistake and blames the White House. However, the polls rarely show a clear majority for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces. This has led to divisions within the Democrats’ congressional caucus and complicated their struggle with the president over war policy. Voters seem to have concluded that Bush has made serious errors in the Middle East but that foreign policy remains a uniquely presidential sphere.

Challenging political climate

This unusual political context, coupled with uncertain public attitudes about policy and political personalities, creates a serious conundrum for both parties:

•Democratic strategy. Democrats will likely endeavor to treat the eventual Republican nominee as if he were the “administration candidate,” but are aware that heavy-handed attempts to associate their opponent with the Bush record might be seen by voters as irrelevant or unfair. McCain or Giuliani would have some latitude to disown the administration’s policies without infuriating party loyalists or conservatives.

•Likely Republican strategies. The Democratic congressional leadership must take account of the risk that a generalized sense of pessimism about the direction of the country and distress at the performance of “Washington politicians” could rebound against them as well as the president. It would be easier, for instance, for Giuliani to portray himself as an “anti-Washington outsider” than Clinton — who has been living in and associated with the U.S. capital for the better part of 15 years. A clever Republican candidate would seek to portray her as a de facto incumbent tied to past failures while distancing himself from Bush.

Iraq is key

Nevertheless, it will be impossible for the Republican nominee to avoid completely association with the White House. The extent to which he can be seen as independent of the president depends on the situation in Iraq:

If large numbers of U.S. troops are still fighting and dying there next year, in conditions that are not deemed encouraging by the electorate, then it will be hard for any Republican nominee to disassociate himself from administration policy. In this case, the Democratic contender is likely to find himself or herself closer to typical voter sentiment.

On the other hand, if there has been a very substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops by mid-2008, then the Republican nominee would be less handicapped by sharing the same party affiliation as an unpopular president.

Therefore, Republicans are likely to put intense pressure on Bush to make gestures towards an endgame in Iraq by late this year — as House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has already signaled.

Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com .