Friday, March 30, 2007

The Presidential Horserace at the First Furlong

With the upcoming FEC filing deadline this weekend, the candidates are making their final fundraising pushes for the quarter in order to boost their numbers as much as possible for the media reports which will inevitably follow. It's useful therefore to stop a moment to take stock before the financial analyses eclipse the actual politics.

Politically, the last few weeks have been best for John Edwards, who finds himself leading the most recent Iowa caucus polls and boosting his national numbers by nearly 50%, although he lags in 4th place nationally, and it remains to be seen to what extent these leads are an artifact of the sympathy/human interest coverage of his wife's recent and unfortunate diagnosis.

On the Republican side, undeclared Fred Thompson has made impressive movement in the last two weeks, as speculation about his candidacy mounts. He now stands in third place in recent polls, despite the recent shots across his bow by leaders within the evangelical conservative community. In this case, Thompson may be fortunate in his enemies, since Dobson's awkward condemnation gives Thompson a beautiful opening for a "Sistah Souljah of the Right" moment, condemning the unpopular perceptual aspects of a portion of the party's base without actually breaking with the party base on policy.

Like Thompson, third place in the Democratic horserace is currently held by a candidate who has not declared a candidacy. Al Gore received a significant polling boost after the Academy Awards farcically endorsed both An Inconvenient Truth as best documentary, and Melissa Ethridge's banal formulary as a best soundtrack song. It seems unlikely that Gore could build on these numbers though, since he polls best as the Democrats' Bonnie Prince Charlie, who woulda, coulda, shoulda, but never quite did.

The chief reason for thinking Gore polls better as an hypothetical than an actual candidate is seen in the detail of polling for current Democratic runner-up Obama. In addition to the first articles noting that Obama doesn't actually walk on water, we see in the polling details that the major theme in support for Obama remains his appeal as an electable alternative to Hillary Clinton, not any position or achievement of Obama himself. As they did in 2004, the Democratic party is casting about for an alternative to their current frontrunner, who has jumped through all the party's hoops on all the correct hobbyhorses, but who the party now no longer believes can win in the general.

Which brings us to Hillary herself. As a long-time supporter of "three yards and a cloud of dust" management theory, I salute the grim professionalism of her campaign and the managerial efficiency she brings to her political operation. From a cash management point of view, I tend to believe her $400,000 purchase of Vilsack's endorsement was not best-value-for-the-money, but her statistically insignificant deficit in the Iowa polls behind Edwards suggests that her campaign believes that sufficient organisational muscle can steal the Iowa caucus out from under Edwards, which would all but knock Edwards out of contention and, coupled with a Clinton victory in New Hampshire, put Hillary back on the pedestal as the inevitable Democratic nominee.

The Republican frontrunner--now universally recognised as such--Giuliani, did himself no favours in his interview with ABC, airing tonight, in which he unnecessarily elevated his current wife's role and visibility, but did manage to build additional Chamber of Commerce support with his acquisition of Steve Forbes' endorsement and participation.

So what's it all about, Alfie?

In essence, the Democratic and Republican parties have opposite problems. The Democrats have a frontrunner who is broadly acceptable within her party, but the party itself is having preemptive buyer's remorse at thought of actually nominating her for fear of the difficulties of selling her in the general election. The Republicans, on the other hand, have a frontrunner who polls very well for the general election, but has a walk-in closet full of personal issues which threaten his ability to secure the nomination of his own party before reaching the downhill part of the race in the general election.

The Republican Party has lost control of its image in the public mind, as demonstrated by its helplessness to cover for the Bush Adminstration's completely incompetent response to the U.S. Attorneys affair, which now seems certain to reach its climax in the resignation of the Attorney General (this afternoon about 15:45 EDT is where I put my money), leading to the party's currently flatfooted position on the Iran-UK confrontation. The party as a political machine is jammed, no longer receiving reliable direction from the Bush machine, but not yet settled on a post-Bush way forward. This uncertainty has disrupted the modus vivendi of the various factions of the party, and it is not settled within the party how much ideological ballast must be jettisoned to keep the party both philosophically coherent and electorally viable.

On the other hand, it would seem that the Democrats' second thoughts about Hillary spring generally not from any problems the Democratic rank-and-file have with Hillary herself or her political positions and philosophy of government, but with the unresolved problems the Democrats know they and their positions have with the general voter in the contested states they need to secure in order to win the general election. It's not that Hillary's wrong; it's that the voters are wrong, but they can perhaps be gotten around with the right props, casting and production work, without having to rewrite the script.

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