The Crystal Ball's "Magnificent Seven in '07"


Sure, you’ve heard of the Iowa Caucuses, the New Hampshire Primary, and so on. But 2008’s first presidential pre-nomination contests are already underway, and have been for a long (and we’d argue, too long) time. They’re the “invisible” primaries, and for better or worse, we in the pundit class get to throw in our votes.

The concept of the “invisible primary,” first advanced by journalist Arthur Hadley in 1976, has since been referenced liberally to describe the early pre-voting stages of presidential nomination campaigns. The Crystal Ball would argue that the sometimes-awkward adolescent stages of these races are actually best characterized as a series of ongoing phantom battles, in which no votes are cast, but the ups and downs of the larger war can be quantified by a variety of other metrics.

This century’s invisible primaries are no longer just the much-hyped races for cash, poll support, and staff; they’re also races for now-necessary campaign accoutrements such as online networking presences. They take center stage in the national news for entire years before the first votes are cast if only because they’re all the entertainment we have! Is it healthy to be paying so much attention to these factors so early and for so long? Of course not, but until 2008 arrives, they will remain political facts of life.

And just as the frontloading craze dictates our calendar of real primaries, our increasing tendency towards a permanent campaign cycle frontloads the progression of invisible primaries. There are myriad reasons 2008 is a campaign on steroids, but the combination of an earlier, faster lineup of state primaries and caucuses and a lame duck administration has turned the nation’s gaze to the jockeying of both Democratic and GOP contenders more quickly than even we thought possible. It’s as if an inverse relationship between presidential approval and the popularity of the 2008 campaign has taken hold: the less appreciation voters have for Bush, the more eager they are to shop for his successor.

Need proof of campaign acceleration since 2004? Ask yourself this question: how nationally recognizable a figure was Howard Dean in May of 2003? If initial Time Magazine cover appearances are any guidepost, Dean’s surge made him a household name in August of that year. Having appeared on the cover as a political phenomenon in October 2006, Barack Obama is ten months ahead of schedule. And don’t even get us started on how much the financial picture has changed in four years: suffice it to say leading contenders in 2007 are currently raising sums two and three times larger than those of their 2003 counterparts.

So while we wait for the real votes to be cast in the real primaries of January and February 2008, let’s take stock of how the fields of Democratic and Republican hopefuls are doing in the battles of 2007. Remember, taken together, these pre-contests can be useful indicators of candidates’ accumulation of strengths and resources in the run-up to next year’s marathon. Just don’t be fooled: a candidate may generate plenty of noise in an invisible primary, but nominations are decided by delegate shares, not decibel levels. Here are the Crystal Ball’s picks for the top seven invisible primaries of 2007–and we hope you find them simply “out of sight.”

The Invisible Primaries

Invisible Primary The Crystal Ball Says… Early Dem Advantage? Early GOP Advantage?
THE MONEY CHA$E PRIMARY Money is the mother’s milk of politics, and there’s simply no more prominent invisible primary than the chase for cash. Leading presidential candidates in both fields are raising money at blistering clips, but keep in mind that at this point, candidates’ acquisitions of major party financiers are just as critical as their quarterly fundraising totals.

In essence, the primary to post top dollar every three months is supplemented by a non-stop “David Geffen Primary” for Democrats and a “Bob Perry Primary” for Republicans. The Hollywood multimedia mogul and the Texas homebuilder, both billionaires who exemplify the stereotypes of their parties’ fundraising bases, have “signed on” with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, respectively. These and other “big catches,” restricted as they are to donate only $2,300 of their personal funds to their choices, will nonetheless help their endorsees raise many millions in future quarters. So far, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani top this primary’s leader board.
Hillary Clinton

Barack Obama
Mitt Romney

Rudy Giuliani
THE HORSE RACE PRIMARY Polls, polls, and more polls! When you’re a candidate for your party’s presidential nod, it must feel great to be ahead in national surveys testing your field. There’s just one catch: most all of the polls we see each week concerning America’s primary preferences are testing a ballot for an election that will never be held! If anything, poll results released at this stage far in advance of primaries and caucuses give us more of an idea of candidates’ name recognition and room to grow.

Although Rudy Giuliani and John McCain place first and second in most surveys of GOP primary voters, Mitt Romney’s third place showings in some polls have been comparatively more impressive given his larger potential to become better known. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama must constantly look over their shoulders as John Edwards continues to place better in early-state surveys than he does in national surveys.
Hillary Clinton

Barack Obama
Rudy Giuliani

John McCain
THE TALENT BASE PRIMARY Although candidates try their best to preserve most of their financial resources for television appeals, the decisions they make in spending overhead on staff are critically important to their chances of success. In a consultant-driven political world, all is not equal, and the race for the most talented campaign managers, pollsters, ad makers, and field lieutenants matters.

In this invisible primary, each leading candidate has scored some coups: Mike Huckabee is relying on the organizational help of one of South Carolina’s most formidable GOP families, the Campbells, to build support for him in the Palmetto state, and Barack Obama signed on one of John Edwards’s most prized former media advisers, David Axelrod, to craft his message. For his part, Edwards has preserved much of his 2004 organization, and hired a resourceful former member of the House Democratic leadership, David Bonior, to manage his campaign. Aside from big names, candidates are also racing to place organizational staff in as many key states as possible, as soon as possible.
No Clear Favorites No Clear Favorites
THE CATTLE CALL PRIMARY If the 2008 race is a presidential campaign on steroids, we can’t resist diagnosing it with Mad Cow Disease as well, considering the large number of joint “cattle call” appearances that will be held between now and the end of the year. In each party’s recent debate, some candidates took risks to stand out from the field (did you notice which Republicans raised their hands to signify they don’t believe in evolution?), but most chose not to rock the boat.

Whatever routes they choose, candidates’ performances at these events are significant and have the potential to alter their momentum. Democrats are sure to make many appearances before their party’s various constituency groups this year, and we’re looking forward to covering the pageantry of the Republicans’ Iowa Straw Poll on August 11th. For the electorate’s sake, the Crystal Ball hopes these kinds of events are substantive and separate weaker contenders from those who are more obviously prepared to represent their parties next November.
No Clear Favorites No Clear Favorites
THE FACEBOOK PRIMARY There’s no question that the web has found a new way to facilitate campaigns’ connections to supporters in each of the last three presidential elections. This time around, social networking sites such as and have entered the political arena, enabling candidates to raise their profiles and gain support more easily–and virally–among younger and more wired voters. Campaigns are taking these trends seriously, and realize that sites focused on user-generated content can be valuable tools for building email lists and generating buzz.

The youngest major candidate, Barack Obama, has made the biggest splash by far in this primary, and one Facebook group dedicated to his campaign has garnered over 320,000 mostly college-aged members. The downside for Obama? It simply may not be sustainable; membership in the group has already peaked, and who knows if it will be fashionable to be a member when the time comes to vote?

An additional warning about this “viral” brand of politics on the web: as loud as a candidate’s net presence may seem, it’s difficult to translate such enthusiastic backing into success in early primary states. As Howard Dean’s rise and fall proved in 2004, over-enthusiastic support (remember those orange hats?) and campaign invasions into early states can fall flat in places like Iowa, where many voters see their caucus participation as a highly personal process. And even if thousands of Obama’s supporters are concentrated in places such as the college town of Iowa City, there are only so many delegate votes at stake in one area. A small caucus lesson: come 2008, breadth of support will matter more than depth.
Barack Obama No Clear Favorites
THE YOUTUBE PRIMARY Flip the coin: whereas campaigns may cheer a large base of support on networking sites, a large following on may be indicative of something less desirable. As we learned in 2006, when candidates mess up, an uploaded videotape of the not-so-magic moment can dominate campaign discourse for weeks and throw campaigns “off message.” And although the proliferation of clips such as this John Edwards gem ( and this Hillary Clinton moment ( haven’t really derailed either of their campaigns, this video ( of Joe Biden’s reference to Indian-Americans in Delaware caused his campaign heartburn several months ago. Across the aisle, GOP hopeful Tommy Thompson sure is lucky his recent reference to money-making as “part of the Jewish tradition” has yet to hit PC monitors. Aside from candid camera, the attention this guerilla-style ad ( received proved that viral video is here to stay as a feature of presidential politics. (Anyone but Joe Biden) (Anyone but Tommy Thompson)
THE BANDWAGON PRIMARY To what extent do early endorsements matter in the races for presidential nominations? Our answer: they matter to the extent each campaign’s endorsers are willing to work hard to get out the vote on behalf of their choices. Each campaign’s political department is currently in overdrive to sign on elected leaders in major states, and expect the candidates to boast long lists of high and low-profile endorsements over the summer and into the fall. Who will jump on whose bandwagon?

So far, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton have worked most actively to cultivate these lists on the Democratic side, though Barack Obama, Bill Richardson, and Chris Dodd will work hard to match. Of the GOP field, Mitt Romney’s endorsements from 29 members of Congress stand out if only because Romney has never held an office on Capitol Hill. Likewise, Rudy Giuliani’s sizeable early support from conservative elements of the Republican Party, including backing from wealthy publisher Steve Forbes, is impressive given Giuliani’s moderate positions on social issues.
Hillary Clinton

John Edwards
Rudy Giuliani

Mitt Romney

As the academic calendar nears its end, the Crystal Ball staff would like to extend a special thank you to its top-notch interns from the spring semester for their hard work and dedication: Anne Harris, James Noel III, Michael Rocks, Clare Seekins, Bayless Sword, Catherine Tobin and Alex Wong.