"It's just so early" has become a pretty common refrain in response to the fast start of the 2008 presidential campaign.
But it's really not that early at all. The starting line moved up because the finish line moved first; the front-loaded primary calendar that has most states voting on or before Feb. 5, 2008, is forcing the campaign to switch into gear now.
The '08 presidential race should be viewed as two distinct campaigns. Previous primary campaigns have bled seamlessly into the general, which in turn has made the election cycle feel never-ending. For instance, the 2004 campaign, which started full-bore in March 2003, was a solid 20-month continuous campaign because it was all about the general election. The Democratic primary focused on Bush and beating Bush, so the looming general election shone brightly on the party.
This cycle is different. It has two distinct "elections," and candidates who recognize that and stop worrying about the general might benefit more than they realize.
Of the "Big Six" presidential candidates, John Edwards (D), John McCain (R) and Mitt Romney (R) are running predominantly primary campaigns.
For Edwards and McCain, who both are still in fairly good standing with the general electorate, this makes perfect sense. It's the old Nixonian adage: Run to the base in the primaries and to the center for the general. Edwards, thanks to his Southern accent, and McCain, thanks to his 2000 campaign, have established the perception of "electability."
Romney's gambit is a bit trickier, because he isn't well-established nationally, and his move to the right leaves him vulnerable to the "flip-flopper" tag. It's harder for him to claim he's "evolved" rather than just pandering.
The two who are attempting to run the same campaign, both in the primary and the general, are Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. Strategists for both have likely calculated that their pasts or biographies have given them permanent liberal bona fides. The thing they have to worry about is being viewed as polarizing liberals in the general -- so both are trying to run toward the middle now. Clinton is doing it via foreign policy and her husband, and Obama is doing it rhetorically, because his record certainly puts him squarely in the liberal column.
The candidate who's having it both ways, for now, is Rudy Giuliani (R). The former New York City mayor is busy courting conservatives but has yet to fully pander. His "strict constructionist" rhetoric about judges, however, indicates that he may begin a full-fledged conservative pander at some point, and he can do it without losing the center. Like McCain and Edwards, Giuliani has deep-rooted moderate credentials for a general election. Three things will always allow him to be perceived as a moderate: geography (outside of the Buckleys, have you ever met a conservative who lived in New York City?), gay rights and abortion.
As much as I like to be a backseat driver when it comes to campaign strategies, the decisions by the current Big Six to go down the primary/general roads they've chosen make sense for each one.
If Clinton moves too far to the left in the primaries, she'll become the stereotype conservatives have made her out to be for years and thus be unelectable in the general. Edwards tried the electable card last time and it didn't work, so he needs to find true believers if he's going to overcome the Clinton-Obama juggernaut. McCain and Romney can't become the strong general election candidates many believe they'll be without winning the nomination first. Obama's biggest liability is experience, so the more he acts presidential, the better for him in the long run. And then there's Giuliani, who is walking the tightrope as well as anyone right now.
The thing that keeps me awake at night is not the length of the primary season, but the length of the general this cycle. Assuming the '08 general campaign does start on Feb. 6 (the day after Tsunami Tuesday), the two de facto nominees will be in place for nine months, setting up the longest general election in this country's history, which presents all sorts of pitfalls and opportunities.
Among the pitfalls will be voter fatigue, and the biggest potential beneficiary of this byproduct would be a viable third-party candidate. It's an open secret in New York City circles that Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) is at least open to the idea. But there are some scenarios where Bloomy would have no shot, including one in which New Yorkers Clinton and Giuliani are the two major-party nominees. A Bloomberg candidacy might also be hopeless if non-polarizing figures like Obama or McCain end up on top. But a different combination would confuse things. For instance, a Clinton vs. McCain general could easily give rise to a third-party candidate simply out of fatigue over the two front-runners. Remember how disenchanted the public became with Bush vs. Gore in October 2000? Both were on the national scene (Bush via his last name and Gore via his job) for more than a decade. Clinton vs. McCain would be a similar setup.
Another stumbling block is that for nine months, the country will have three presidents: the actual president and the two major-party nominees. No matter your persuasion, it's hard to see how that can be good for the country. Think Bush is a lame duck now? Imagine how lame he'll look when there are two presidents-in-waiting trying to look presidential on any given day. This will be an especially big problem for the eventual GOP nominee who will want to both show distance from Bush and at the same time show deference. The eventual Democratic nominee, on the other hand, is going to love playing the GOP nominee off of the president, and the press will eat that up -- which will make for a Republican public relations challenge that has never been seen before. How the Bush White House and the eventual GOP nominee get along is going to go a long way in determining whether the Republicans have a decent shot at winning a third straight presidential election.
As for opportunities, it depends on the nominees. A few of them could be using the time to create a shadow government (something I've advocated in previous columns, including one in 2004 during the March-to-conventions lull). If a nominee is perceived as lacking experience (see Obama), putting together a team of senior Cabinet appointees could show a campaign ready to hit the ground running. More importantly, publicly putting together a shadow government will keep the media busy and allow that candidate to dominate the message fight. Imagine a nominee unveiling his candidate for secretary of education during Education Week. It certainly would force the media to pay more attention. The downside, of course, is if a potential nominee doesn't vet, but there's risk in every facet of presidential politics.
Another opportunity the long general will provide is more time to recalibrate. Romney, McCain and Edwards are all running very primary-centric campaigns right now. Giuliani will likely join them in this regard very soon. A nine-month campaign allows a long time for transformation. The public expects it and is usually fairly forgiving of it. But let me offer one caveat: This "authenticity" trait seems to be one the public is craving more and more, and recalibrating candidates could be punished. Still, history has shown that these types (including Bush, Clinton and Reagan) tend to get rewarded.