A Democrat in 2008?
Not So Fast
Every general indicator of political attitudes this summer points to a Democratic victory in 2008. Yet nearly every specific measure of the presidential race points to another intensely competitive campaign for the White House.
That dichotomy will fuel a year-long battle for the hearts and minds of independent voters, who may hold the key to victory, and underscores the challenges ahead for the candidates.
By almost any measure, this is an unhappy country anxious for a change from the current administration. More than two-thirds of people polled think the country is going in the wrong direction. President Bush's unpopularity drags down his party. And when asked, more people say they would rather see a Democrat elected president next year than a Republican.
But when Americans begin to think about their real choices for president, a different pattern emerges. The contest suddenly becomes much closer. For all their party's problems, the best-known Republican candidates are more than holding their own against the leading Democrats in most hypothetical match-ups.
A new Gallup Poll sheds light on the reasons why. At this point in the campaign, the poll shows, Americans have about as much confidence in Rudy Giuliani and John McCain to deal with Iraq as they have in Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards -- and considerably more confidence in them when it comes to terrorism.
Fifty-five percent of Americans said they had confidence in McCain and Giuliani on Iraq. Fifty-four percent said the same of Obama, 51 percent of Clinton, 48 percent of Edwards.
"The failure of the Democratic candidates to score higher confidence levels on Iraq is significant given the fact that a substantial majority of Americans say that the war -- initiated and supported by a Republican administration -- is a mistake, and that a majority have opposed the Bush administration surge that has been supported by both Giuliani and in particular McCain," wrote Jeffrey M. Jones and Joseph Carroll of the Gallup organization.
The two Republicans enjoy a clear advantage over the three top Democrats on terrorism, traditionally a GOP strength, while the Democrats have clear leads on dealing with health care, long a strong suit for the Democrats. On the crucial question of who earns the public's confidence to deal with the economy, Obama, Clinton and Giuliani are clustered together at about 60 percent, while McCain and Edwards are just over 50 percent.
The Gallup survey also included Republicans Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson, but they don't measure up as well, in part because many Americans still don't know enough about them.
Behind those numbers is this reality: Giuliani and McCain are more competitive in hypothetical general election races at this point because on Iraq, for example, they engender more confidence among Democrats than Clinton, Obama and Edwards do among Republicans.
On terrorism, a majority of Democrats say they have confidence in the two Republicans, but fewer than a third of Republicans express confidence in any of the top Democrats.
Given voting patterns of the past several elections, it's likely that no matter what Democrats might think of the Republican nominee on issues like Iraq or terrorism or the economy, they will line up solidly behind their nominee -- as Republican voters will do behind their nominee. Clinton is by far the most politically polarizing of all the candidates.
That leaves the battle for independents, whose sentiments with respect to individual candidates are at odds with all other evidence that these voters are now leaning toward the Democratic Party.
In the Gallup survey, independents ranked Giuliani and McCain only slightly below Clinton and Obama on Iraq and gave them generally higher ratings than the Democrats on terrorism. Clinton and Obama enjoy more trust among independents at this point, but a majority also said they have confidence in Giuliani to keep the country prosperous.
In last year's midterm elections, Republican incumbents were overwhelmed by the sour public mood toward the president and the state of the country. In that case, individual attributes of Republican candidates were not enough to overcome clear sentiment for change. A shift among independents was a prime reason why Democrats took back both the House and Senate.
But in 2004, Bush managed to win reelection despite an environment that was clearly favorable to the Democrats. In that case, confidence in Bush -- or perhaps doubts about John F. Kerry -- overcame disappointment in his policies and growing concerns about the war in Iraq.
The overall environment certainly looks favorable for the Democrats. But presidential campaigns reward candidates who earn the public's trust and confidence. At this point, Giuliani and McCain have earned that trust on crucial issues. That shows Democrats may need more than a favorable political climate to win back the White House in 2008.
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