Despite all the campaigning and activity, the presidential campaign thus far has really been the off-season in sports terms. There have been the equivalents of trades, contracts with potentially game-changing players signed, new coaches and managers hired in the form of fund-raising, consultants, endorsements and advertisements, but no actual games have yet been played. That will change very soon with the Iowa caucuses on January 3 and the New Hampshire primary on the 9th, followed in short order by the South Carolina primary on the 21st and the Florida primary on January 31.
For many sports fans, the time just before the first pitch or kickoff is as good as it gets for them. At this point, every team is tied with no losses and every fan can imagine or at least hope that this will be their team’s year. Inevitably, many will have their dreams shattered in short order. Half of all teams are going to lose their first game and some will lose so badly that their fans’ euphoria will quickly descend into despondence.
For this reason, I think Republicans are probably at the peak of their optimism and enthusiasm. Every Republican has a candidate who represents his or her philosophy. And although the polls clearly show that some of the party’s presidential hopefuls are going to soon fall by the wayside, their supporters can still hope for an upset until the final vote is counted in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere.
By contrast, I think Democrats are at their low point. Barack Obama does not have a primary challenger and so has been somewhat in the background. His supporters haven’t been able to savor the little political victories that the Republicans have enjoyed when one of their candidates snagged a big endorsement, aired a hard-hitting commercial or announced a big fund-raising haul. And it is in Obama’s interest to withhold fire on the various Republicans to save ammunition for the general election. Also, if he went after one Republican in particular, it might lead Republicans to conclude that he or she is the one he most fears to run against.
The top tier candidates are going to exert enormous pressure on the also-rans to cash in their chips while they still have value.
All of this is going to change very quickly as the Republican field necessarily contracts. Some candidates have put all their eggs into one basket in one of the early primaries. If they don’t at least rise into the top tier of candidates, their money and support is going to dry up. At the same time, the top tier candidates are going to exert enormous pressure on the also-rans to cash in their chips while they still have value. A Rick Santorum endorsement may have value in January, possibly securing him a cabinet post or some other thing of value, but by February it is going to be worth a lot less and by March have no value at all.
To the extent that there is a Republican establishment left, it too will start pressuring the also-rans to drop out and get behind the candidate with the best chance of beating Obama. We can anticipate that Fox News, which is the closest thing to a kingmaker left in the GOP, will cease coverage of bottom tier candidates and begin trashing those that refuse to read the handwriting on the wall and drop out.
Ideally, Republicans would like to unify around one candidate as soon as possible. Having Republicans continually attacking each other only helps the Democrats. And the longer it goes on, the more danger that these attacks will spill over into the general election, hurting the Republican ticket all the way down to the local level. Also, the sooner a de facto nominee emerges, the sooner that person can begin using their resources to attack Obama.
Although it may be hard to imagine, say, a Romney-Gingrich ticket, it was equally hard to imagine John F. Kennedy running with Lyndon Johnson in 1960.
But at the same time, at least some Republicans will be dismayed that their candidate is no longer in the running. They may conclude that if they can’t have their candidate at the top of the ticket then they will just sit out the election. It’s hard to believe that Ron Paul’s supporters could be satisfied with Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich as the Republican nominee. They may pressure Paul to run an independent race in November, which will inevitably hurt the GOP.
The one card that the Republican nominee will be able to play all the way through the Republican National Convention in Tampa in late August is the vice presidential nomination. Historically, this has often been offered to the nominee’s principal challenger in order to unite the party. Perhaps the best recent example was Ronald Reagan’s choice of George H.W. Bush in 1980. And although it may be hard to imagine, say, a Romney-Gingrich ticket, it was equally hard to imagine John F. Kennedy running with Lyndon Johnson in 1960.
The vice presidency is also in play for Obama should he need it. While at this moment, there is no reason to think that he will not run again with Joe Biden, there are those in the Democratic Party who think Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would strengthen the ticket. It would also establish Clinton as the logical frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic nomination. It’s hard to imagine Joe Biden as a future Democratic nominee.
Some Republicans are also thinking down the road to 2016 because in the event of an Obama victory, the Republican would be in a very strong position to win that year, given that neither party has had much success holding the White House for more than 8 years at a time in the postwar era. Voter fatigue tends to be very difficult to overcome. That is why some Republicans are pushing for former Secretary of State Condi Rice to be the VP regardless of who wins the GOP nomination.
Republican enthusiasm will naturally diminish as some Republicans are forced to accept a nominee who doesn’t reflect their views or priorities. Democrats will also have a clear target to aim at. At the same time, the prospect that Republicans may get control of both houses of Congress and the presidency is going to frighten the Democratic base into action, along with a lot of independents who remember what a lousy job Republicans did from 2001 to 2006 when they last had complete control of the federal government.
In the end, the race will be close. Republicans, many of whom believe the election will be a slam-dunk for whoever they nominate, would do well to recognize this fact and perhaps push “electability” a little higher on their list of qualities that their candidate should possess. And Democrats who may now be a bit despondent about Obama’s chances should take heart. The fat lady isn’t even warming up yet.