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Throw history out the window

An uncertain primary schedule and a lack of incumbents might mean history won't be a reliable prediction tool in the 2008 White House race.   By Charlie Cook, National Journal.
/ Source: National Journal

Just as baseball fans tend to be hooked on statistics -- and the more arcane the better -- political aficionados often look to historical precedents and analogous situations for clues of future events, whether truly applicable or not.

All in all, it's not a bad thing, as long as one does not become a prisoner of history. But this presidential campaign might be so different that many past patterns will not apply or might be terribly misleading.

Over the last 90 years, only two sitting U.S. senators have won the presidency -- Warren G. Harding in 1920 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. The New York Times recently pointed out that the last two former mayors elected were Grover Cleveland in 1884 and Calvin Coolidge in 1924. No woman, black or Mormon has ever even won a party nomination. Furthermore, no Arizonan has won the presidency nor has anyone over 70 won a first term.

So here is the bottom line: History will be made, or at least long-standing patterns will be altered, almost no matter what happens in this election.

This will be the first post-9/11 presidential election with no incumbent running. Will the war in Iraq elevate foreign policy to a point where current or former governors and mayors need not apply? Or could only one with extraordinary intellect and/or leadership skills still make it?

The only contested presidential nomination in 2004 was on the Democratic side. During 2003, the top fundraiser was former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who pulled in just over $40 million. Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John Edwards, D-N.C., raised just over $15 million and $10 million, respectively. Kerry won the nomination and Edwards ran second. But this time, it might be that any candidate who does not raise at least $75 million -- some say $100 million -- will not be viable.

With as much as half the country seemingly contemplating primaries on Feb. 5, 2008, just on the heels of the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, there will be very little time for any upset winner in Iowa or New Hampshire to raise sufficient money to capitalize on it just two weeks later.

The point of all of this is to say that this election is shaping up to be much different from past years. With so many different and complex moving parts, it is almost inevitable that many traditional yardsticks and rules of thumb won't apply. But at the same time, not all of them will be irrelevant.

Perhaps one of the most confounding questions is the lack of an old-fashioned conservative in the upper ranks of the GOP field. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is a conservative only in the most liberal definition imaginable. And while the voting record of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is a lot more conservative than many critics in his own party want to admit, he has a well-earned reputation as a maverick, bucking the majority of GOP senators more often than the party leadership over the years has wanted.

In national polls, the third-place possible contender is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who will decide in September or October whether he will run. While certainly a conservative, Gingrich isn't an old-fashioned, run-of-the-mill anything -- he's one of a kind. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has always been well within the mainstream of the GOP on economic issues, but he is unquestionably a very recent convert to the cause on social and cultural issues.

To be sure, there are old-fashioned conservatives in the second tier: certainly Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, but also Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

What this means is unclear. It might just be chance. After all, a year ago then-Sen. George Allen of Virginia appeared likely to run and he is certainly an old-fashioned conservative. If former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were running, he would qualify as well.

But another factor is that with President Bush's job approval ratings in the 30s, the GOP may be in more of an experimental mode than normal, and the chances of the party nominating someone who is ideologically or stylistically like him are reduced by his lack of popularity. Republicans know that if they run a status quo candidate, and the 2008 race is framed as status quo versus change, they will lose.

For Republicans to have a chance, voters have to be given the choice of two variations of change. That doesn't mean liberal or necessarily even moderate, but certainly someone who will be judged independently of President Bush.

The more I think about the 2008 election, the more I suspect it will be driven by circumstances as much as personality. It will be a challenge for the GOP no matter what, keeping in mind that only once in the 15 post-World War II elections has a party been able to win the White House three times in a row.

If I had to predict which party will win the presidency I would first need to know either the identities of the two nominees or how many pairs of boots are in Iraq and how the war is going. While knowing the nominees would be helpful, I'd rather know about the situation in Iraq. If Iraq is roughly where we are now or, God forbid, worse, it will be very tough for Republicans to hold onto the White House, regardless of who the nominees are. If it is going appreciably better, it will likely be more of a fair fight.