Experts Say '08 Still 'Very Fluid'

As presidential tracking polls sprout almost daily, even seasoned experts hesitate to predict the outcomes of the upcoming Iowa and New Hampshire primaries and caucuses.

Polling and political experts who gathered at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday morning for the first installment of Election Watch 2008 agreed that the race was “fluid” and among Republicans, a five-way deadlock could ensue.

Resident Scholar Norm Ornstein said the public mood is “extraordinarily sour” and reminded the audience that things often change significantly in the month before a vote because “people don’t focus” until they must.

He noted that in November of 2003, eventual Democratic nominee John Kerry was tied for fifth place with John Edwards — behind Joe Leiberman and then-frontrunner Howard Dean.

“The Zeitgesit on the Republican side just shifted remarkably…to Mike Huckabee,” said Ornstein.

Huckabee’s success as the favorite in Iowa — and now Michigan (according to the latest Rasmussen poll) — is surprising but not necessarily telling.

Syndicated Columnist Michael Barone called Huckabee “the flavor of the month” and claimed he could think up “60 scenarios” for the outcome of the Republican primaries, including a deadlock race among several candidates with little difference in popularity ratings.

Barone said Huckabee found a conservative Christian constituency (polls show 2/3 supporters consider themselves ‘evangelical Christians’) to boost his numbers in Iowa but New Hampshire will not be so friendly.

For New Hampshire and other upcoming primary states like South Carolina, Michigan, Florida, California and Nevada, the race is wide open for Republicans and less so for Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Barone said he sees three possibilities for the Democrats – two resulting in a Clinton nomination, one resulting in Obama. While only 23% of Republicans say they’ve decided on a candidate, 40% of Democrats have locked in, meaning statistics for the Democrats are more reliable — this according to the latest CBS/New York Times poll.

Many analysts have noted that this election is the most unusual in decades because there is no incumbent president or vice president running and for the first time, a woman and an African American each have a serious shot at the presidency.

On the issues that Americans care about most — foreign policy, immigration, healthcare, taxes — Democrats and Republicans differ remarkably. Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert and senior fellow at AEI, said there is a high level of national pessimism but seven in 10 Americans believe Iraq is better in the long run for America’s intervention. This is good for Republicans who are happy to see that Iraq has gone from a “steady boil on the front burner to a simmer.”

Immigration concerns — polling higher now than ever — trump health care issues by far, as most Americans say they are “very satisfied” with their health care. Contrarily, a Newsweek/PSRA poll found that only 15% of Iowa caucus goers would favor the children of illegal immigrants receiving eligibility for state college funding, proving that unease about immigration has not settled.

Though the President’s low approval rating fairs better than that of Congress, AEI Research Fellow and election expert John C. Fortier said the President’s approval rating is much more predictive on the next congressional election outcomes.

In a Dec. 12 op-ed in The Hill, Fortier said that “for the fifth election cycle in a row, there will be more Republican than Democratic seats open…the more that Republicans retire, the more certain it is that the House will remain in Democratic hands.”

He also said, in the Senate, “possibilities of scandal are mostly on the Republican side.” And while Democrats are leaving the Congress to move up, many Republicans are “just leaving,” which demonstrates a loss of morale within the Party.

On the Democrat side, more factors become relevant for choosing a candidate. Bowman said that 60% of Democratic voters this year are females and Nevada, an early caucus state, is largely female.

The question of whether America would elect a woman or an African-American has taken precedence but Ornstein said, “People that wouldn’t vote for an African-American wouldn’t vote for a Democrat in the first place.”

The party races are running concurrently now but their Ornstein said they are interrelated.  If one ends early – if, for example, one candidate swept the early states and captured unstoppable momentum —  all attention will move to the other party.

“It’s possible that Iowa and New Hampshire…will be a super-slingshot giving candidates momentum,” Ornstein said. “The free publicity that comes to early winners will overwhelm advertisers, making early races more formidable.”

Ornstein said he gives it a 25% chance that there will be five candidates at the end of the primaries with 5-20% of the delegates with no significant leads and no one willing to pull out.

Barone said Romney was “moving upward but not spectacularly” and that McCain started off thinking he was the next in line for the presidency and “proceeded to run his campaign as if he already had the money.”

There was no consensus among this group, (who will  reconvene in January) but they did agree that in the general election, the major issues may need to be “framed differently” to put the battle of ideas on new terrain.