Who Sees '08 Symmetry? (Your Crystal Ball...)


There’s no better day than Friday the 13th to venture into the occult, so your clairvoyant friends at the upstanding U.Va. Center for Politics just couldn’t resist: we had to share the latest results of our Crystal Ball gazing with you today. And what a freaky election we spy in the not-so-far-off future!

Towering, larger-than-life political figures loom over the 2008 presidential landscape as we approach the nine-month mark before Iowans trudge through the snow to their precinct caucuses and kick off a mad dash for convention delegates. And while we political analysts gaze into our crystal balls each day to try to make sense of it all, the contenders gaze into their crystal mirrors each morning and see the 44th President of the United States.

But the true mirror images of the spectacular race for Leader of the Free World in 2008 may not be images of each candidate, but rather each field. As expected, the lack of an incumbent president or vice president in contention for the first time since 1928* has spawned free-for-alls in both parties, not to mention limitless entertainment for political junkies. Furthermore, it’s possible that for the first time since 1928–when the Democrats nominated a Catholic for president and the GOP nominated a Native American for vice president–both tickets will break racial or religious barriers in the same year.

In a column published ten months ago in The Hill, former Clinton poll guru Dick Morris astutely observed “a surprising and artful symmetry” in how each party’s 2008 field of candidates was shaping up. Back then, each party seemed to have one stand-out star, a few giants waiting in the wings, and a similar number of potential hopefuls–a striking balance really only possible in an election with as unusual a set of circumstances as this one. Of course, much has changed since that reading, and even your Crystal Ball has been surprised by the counterintuitive nature of the field’s evolution.

Point in case: after a midterm Democratic triumph and amid dismal public approval ratings for the incumbent GOP president, shouldn’t we expect more Democrats than Republicans to be running in 2008? Yet in the last year, we’ve crossed the names of only two once-likely GOP contenders from the list: Bill Frist and George Allen. By contrast, the list of Democrats taking a pass now includes the names of Mark Warner, Evan Bayh, Tom Vilsack, Russ Feingold, Tom Daschle, and John Kerry. In fact, as of last week there were as few major announced competitors for the Democratic nomination as there were contestants remaining on American Idol. What gives?

To play Simon Cowell, it’s true that the performances of many lower-tier candidates on the Democratic side thus far haven’t exactly been able to give their party’s superstars, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, runs for their money (and as we were reminded last week: it’s a LOT of money!). It follows, then, that the dominance of the Democrats’ top tier may be the culprit behind the cold feet of those who have chosen to take a seat on the sidelines. Meanwhile, the growth of the GOP field has been aided by the Republican base’s sense of an ideological void. With no unanimity as to which of the party’s leading candidates is the “true conservative”–if there can be one at all–more lesser-known candidates claiming the conservative mantle have stepped forward than the GOP can reasonably sustain through to January.

Still, despite the differences between each field’s size and structure at this point, striking similarities abound. Each party has a well-defined top tier of three candidates, two of whom are easily recognizable by their first names. We’ll call these political powerhouses the “Power 6.” Beyond these tiers, the competitiveness of candidates on each side drops markedly, though two to three candidates per party are in hot pursuit and have moved within closer striking distance of the top tiers in both money and organization since the beginning of the year. Finally, there are still a few heavyweights lurking in Democratic and GOP shadows, poised to spring into immediate contention if they decide they are up to the task.

The chart below represents our best attempt at demonstrating the symmetry of the fields of presidential candidates at this point in time. We’ve matched a Democrat and a Republican into each of ten categories, and please let us know where you agree or disagree! Send email to goodpolitics@virginia.edu. By the way, a note for our four “GOP Extras”–don’t take offense; your exclusion from our comparisons is simply a mathematical necessity at this early stage. It’s still anyone’s game!

The Symmetry of the 2008 Race for President


Democrats Categories Republicans

Hillary Clinton

The Poll-Positioned Pols

Are these two universally identifiable national political figures on an inescapable collision course? New York narrowly averted a battle royal between them in 2000 thanks to Giuliani’s health issues, but many believe this Subway Series to be a thing of destiny. At this point, both of them hold significant but not overwhelming leads over their fields in national polls (the only problem–these polls are testing an election that will never be held!) As if sharing stature and a home state wasn’t enough, “Hillary!” and “Rudy!” also share considerable personal baggage relating to their marriages.

The Crystal Ball is skeptical that a race between them will actually materialize, but if it does, we’d bet on Clinton to win New York’s 31 electoral votes. Although Giuliani may be the more genuine product of the Big Apple, both candidates have already given us the gift (or is it a curse?) of a presidential election that never sleeps.

Rudy Giuliani

Barak Obama

The Media Darlings (Present and Past)

The media sensation surrounding Obama’s candidacy for president as a Senate newcomer in 2007 reminds us of the buzz that encircled McCain’s campaign for president as a Senate outsider in 1999. But that may be where the similarities end: the Crystal Ball will admit that of all our pairings, we advance this one with the least confidence. Whereas Democrats’ chief concern with respect to Obama is his inexperience, McCain’s status as a septuagenarian is a source of pause for some Republicans.

Arguably, Obama’s campaign bears more resemblance to Giuliani’s, as they can claim highly emotional connections to their supporters based on the buzzwords of “hope” and “courage” respectively. It could also be said that McCain and Clinton have shared the experience of serving as their party’s most recognizable “national Senator” since 2000: prior to that election, McCain was a Senator but not yet a national figure, and Clinton was a national figure but not yet a Senator.

John McCain

John Edwards

The Made-for-TV Twosome

Both very telegenic candidates, Edwards and Romney are among their parties’ most talented internet-age communicators (the Crystal Ball hates to be superficial, but have you ever seen either of them appear with a single hair out of place?). After one term in statewide office, both are now a solid third in most polls for their parties’ nominations, with major upsides: Edwards can look forward to a very advantageous calendar of early primaries and caucuses, and Romney is his party’s money leader.

Each became personally wealthy after leading a highly successful career in his party’s most closely associated profession: law (Edwards) and business (Romney). Each has a national (if fleeting) claim to fame as well: Romney led the financial turnaround of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics; Edwards was his party’s vice presidential nominee in 2004. Both men’s wives are exceptionally strong assets on the campaign trail, though neither man is a strong favorite son: were both men to be nominated by their parties, 2008 would likely see the first ever election in which both candidates went on to lose their home states.

Mitt Romney


Democrats Categories Republicans

Bill Richardson

The Get-Along Govs

Richardson and Huckabee have crept into contention as easy-going, twice-elected small-state Governors who emphasize bipartisanship and cooperation everywhere they go. At one point both very active in the National Governors Association, both now lead their parties’ second tiers of presidential hopefuls. Supporters often point to their balance of experience, partisan credentials, and electability–qualities that will most likely recommend them for vice presidential slots, though neither can be counted out of the race for the top job.

Running under the shadow of better-known candidates who have served in elected office for shorter periods of time, they love to point to their breadths of experience: Huckabee as a governor, Baptist minister, and personal health advocate; Richardson as a congressman, U.N. Ambassador, and U.S. Secretary of Energy.

Mike Huckabee

Chris Dodd

The Washington Wizards

Dodd and Brownback are the two Senators most party activists outside of Washington express annoyance with for looking into the mirror every morning and seeing a president. After all, they’ve paid their dues to their party leadership in both the House and Senate and have represented their small, partisan states to a T, but what do they have to offer that other candidates don’t?

Well, they can claim strong decade-plus records of domestic legislative accomplishment to boot, but both men sure are having a difficult time making policy-making sound exciting on the stump. With less cash than other contenders in their parties, both have resorted to heavy retail campaigning in early states, emphasizing a willingness to listen to individual voter concerns. Roman Catholics, Dodd and Brownback hope slow and steady will win the race, and have earned several good reviews so far this year on the early state speaking circuit.

Sam Brownback

Joe Biden

The Washington Lizards

Okay, okay; the Crystal Ball admits that neither Biden nor Hagel have scales on their backs, but few would deny they possess sharp tongues. These small-state Senators have earned big reputations as straight-talking foreign policy experts, and have made more Meet the Press appearances than any other pair of contenders this decade. They share not only a maverick styling but a similar stance on Iraq: in January, they co-sponsored a Senate resolution to express “clear opposition” to President Bush’s troop surge.

Of the two, Biden has been hurt more often by his outspokenness, and was bedeviled by allegations of plagiarism in his first national run 20 years ago. Then again, Foreign Relations Committee Chair Biden is definitely running this time around, and decorated Vietnam veteran Hagel can’t seem to make up his mind on making the race.

Chuck Hagel

Al Gore

The Heroes in Waiting

Has any state’s U.S. Senate delegation included more rumored or actual candidates for President in the last 20 years than Tennessee’s? It’s not as if Bill Frist and Lamar Alexander need to be told to move over these days, but it’s remarkable that the two candidates with the most potential to completely recast their parties’ nomination contests occupied the exact same Volunteer State seat in Congress’s upper chamber.

Each candidate has enjoyed Hollywood success in his own way: Thompson as a movie actor and no-nonsense character on “Law & Order,” and Gore more recently as the star of an Oscar-winning global warming documentary. At this stage, Thompson seems much more likely than Gore to throw his hat into the 2008 ring, but we won’t be surprised if many Democrats bored with the existing field of candidates make entreaties to the former Vice President late into the year.

Fred Thompson

Wesley Clark

The Draft-Me Duo

Like Gore and Thompson, these two southerners aren’t running for president at the moment. The big difference? They have well-staffed political operations to facilitate their communication with supporters and press, removing a lot of potential media curiosity from their would-be campaigns for president. In fact, the Crystal Ball senses that each man hopes a large enough “draft effort” builds so as to legitimize a White House bid in 2008.

Clark and Gingrich rose to their highest offices during the Clinton years; Clark as NATO Supreme Allied Commander and Gingrich as Speaker of the House. Both men possess unquestionable intelligence: Clark was valedictorian of his class at West Point, and Gingrich is still widely regarded as one of the most forward-thinking policy minds in his party. But Clark’s dismal performance in the 2004 primaries fail to inspire much hope for 2008 success, and Gingrich would likely be a more viable candidate in spite of his three marriages.

Newt Gingrich

Dennis Kucinich

The (Anything but West) Wingers

Kucinich and Tancredo are so far out on either side of the political spectrum, it’s a wonder they continue to win reelection handily in their suburban congressional districts. Born less than a year apart, both men are impassioned hard-liners with zero chance of winning the presidency…of anything other than Peace Action or the Minutemen Project, that is. Although they will both deny they are single-issue candidates, Kucinich and Tancredo’s soaring rhetoric on the subjects of their dearest causes make it difficult for voters to associate them with any issues other than the Iraq war and immigration, respectively.

Tom Tancredo

Mike Gravel

The Blasts from the Past

Haven’t heard of these candidates? You may not have been paying close attention to politics in the 1970’s and 80’s, but don’t worry, you’re in the vast majority of the American public. Now both in their 70’s, Gravel and Paul were first elected to stints in Congress decades ago, Gravel to the Senate from Alaska and Paul to the House from Texas. Upon leaving office in the 1980’s, both embarked upon rather quixotic political efforts: Gravel led an unfruitful movement to pass a constitutional amendment to enable voter-initiated federal referenda, while Paul joined the Libertarian Party and placed third behind George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis as its 1988 presidential nominee. Paul ultimately rejoined the GOP fold and has been reelected to the House from Texas since 1997, but both blasts from the past represent the backs of their packs at this point.

Ron Paul


While we don’t want to refer to this group of GOP contenders as the “Bush League,” two of these candidates left their gubernatorial offices with underwhelming approval ratings: exactly the kind of “Bush” unpopularity problem Republicans want to avoid in 2008. Indeed, Pataki and Gilmore have not been able to gain much traction at all thus far, and Pataki’s campaign in particular appears to be over before it even began, despite the candidate’s best efforts.

Of the four “without compare” on the Democratic side, former four-term Wisconsin Governor Thompson would seem the most credible, especially in light of the plaudits he has won for revamping his state’s welfare system. But his service in the Bush Cabinet will probably be a negative in 2008, and many younger conservatives in the field are stealing his thunder as an “alternative” on the right.

As an alternative to expensive presidential bids and with all due respect to both Hunter and Thompson, the Crystal Ball suggests they combine operations, adopt the Trumanesque middle initial “S,” and cover the 2008 race as gonzo journalists under the guise of “Hunter S. Thompson.”

George Pataki

Tommy Thompson

Jim Gilmore

Duncan Hunter

*Truman’s VP Alben Barkley of Kentucky (1949-1953) made a brief, half-hearted run for the Democratic nomination in 1952, but his campaign was over quickly and not taken terribly seriously, in part because of his age of 74.

Special thanks to Crystal Ball interns Anne Harris, Michael Rocks, Bayless Sword, Catherine Tobin and Alexander Wong for their assistance in research for this report.