The 2008 Presidential Race

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The character and qualifications of the nominees are going to be more important than party preference in determining who wins the 2008 presidential election. That's my conclusion from the initial 2008 polls I've seen. Pollster Scott Rasmussen reports that in the generic vote for president, Democrats have an impressive 44 to 32 percent edge over Republicans. That's a lot bigger than the 38 to 36 percent Democratic edge in party identification in the 2006 EMR exit poll. And I guess it has to be taken as a repudiation of George W. Bush, who remains the most prominent Republican on the national scene.

But when you look at how specific candidates do, you see very different results. I am focusing here on the three best-known candidates, who also lead in 2008 primary polls—Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Here are Rasmussen's numbers, announced shortly after the 2006 election, and here are the cross-tabs available by subscription. McCain leads Clinton 48 to 43 percent; Giuliani and Clinton are tied at 46 percent each.

You get a slightly different picture from SurveyUSA's 50-state polls (they even take the trouble to sample the District of Columbia). They give the results by electoral vote, but looking at the state results (available to members only), you can get an idea of the national popular vote percentages. They show Giuliani leading Clinton 354 to 184 and McCain leading Clinton by a nearly identical 351 to 187. But Giuliani's popular vote advantage (about 49.5 to 44.5 percent) is larger than McCain's (about 47.5 to 45.2 percent). McCain's leads are within the margin of error in more states than Giuliani's are. And Giuliani runs perceptibly stronger in Florida and in the Northeastern states from Rhode Island south to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. States Giuliani carries and McCain doesn't: Florida and New Jersey. States that McCain carries and Giuliani doesn't: Minnesota, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. Clinton carries only a handful of states and D.C. by more than 4 percentage points against either candidate.

A Giuliani or, to a lesser extent, a McCain candidacy makes the Republican ticket much more competitive in the Northeast. Giuliani's percentage margins over Clinton in these polls vastly exceed George W. Bush's 2004 margins over John Kerry in the row of states with large Italian-American populations (Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey). All but Rhode Island are within the New York City media market. His margins in the South, the Great Plains, and the northern Rocky Mountain states are less than Bush's, but since Bush carried almost every state in those regions by wide margins, Giuliani still ropes in their electoral votes. He doesn't run much better than Bush in California and not at all better in Illinois, which after all is Clinton's native state. His margins are bigger than Bush's in the three Rocky Mountain states targeted by Democrats in 2004: Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada.

McCain's margins exceed Bush's the most in his own Arizona, in the Pacific Northwest, and in and around the Boston media market (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island). He doesn't run much better than Bush in New York or New Jersey. Like Giuliani's, his margins are smaller than those of Bush in most of the South and Great Plains—but that doesn't put any electoral votes in danger.

All these numbers suggest that if Giuliani/McCain or Clinton are the nominees, we won't see in 2008 the political contours we have been accustomed to seeing in presidential and House races from 1996 to 2004 and which continued roughly in 2006, with Republican percentages declining uniformly just about everywhere. The balance in California and the Great Lakes states wouldn't be much different from 2004, but many Northeastern states would be competitive (only New Hampshire was in 2004). The South would be less heavily Republican, leaving the Democrats with a couple of possible targets (Arkansas and Louisiana) in addition to Florida, which was a target in 1996, 2000, and 2004. Most of the Great Plains states would be out of the Democrats' reach, but their chances in Missouri would probably be better than in 2004, when it faded from the target list near the end.

In effect, if the Republicans nominate Giuliani or McCain, they would be trading southern-accented voters (as far north as rural Missouri and the Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois counties just north of the Ohio River) for northern-accented voters, with Giuliani particularly strong with New York-accented voters and McCain with New England-accented voters. The Electoral College map would look more like that of 1988 or even 1976 than that of 1996, 2000, and 2004. But I emphasize here that I have used the weasel words suggest and if. These numbers aren't etched in stone. They mean a lot more than the numbers you see on Mitt Romney, Tom Vilsack, or even John Edwards today, who are not known in depth by most voters.

But voters will know even more about them than they do today if Rudy, McCain, or Hillary are nominated, and events may lead voters to give different weight than they do today to their already perceived strengths and weaknesses.