Election Prediction: Clinton Defeats Romney
First, a caveat: like Steve, I wonder if this prediction process is something of a fool’s errand. Political scientists have some pretty good theories for predicting individual and aggregate voting behavior in general elections, particularly for the presidency, but we have nothing that does much with the primary process, as it’s very sui generis and really a recent innovation in American politics; I’ve been alive more-or-less as long as the primary/caucus system has displaced the conventions, so there’s simply not much data to work with. The basic theory we do have, the median voter theorem, relies on understanding who the primary electorate is… and that varies from year to year and from state to state. Post hoc we can say Kerry appealed to the median Iowa caucus-goer in 2004, but that really doesn’t help as an analytical tool before the election.
With that out of the way… on to predictions. I think the easy prediction to make is that the Democratic nominee is almost certain to be Hillary Clinton. While I think there are elements of the base that prefer John Edwards and Barack Obama, Clinton has the backing of the party establishment and has cornered many of the key endorsements that Obama would need to gain the backing of the African-American community in South Carolina and other states with good-sized black Democratic primary electorates (the presence of native son Edwards on the S.C. ballot is unlikely to help Obama either). Edwards’ failure to receive the unequivocal backing of the labor movement also diminishes his stature as a potential roadblock for Clinton, even though both he and Obama are probably better on the stump and viable general election candidates. The only other candidate with serious executive experience, Bill Richardson, has just failed to gain any traction with the voters despite a potentially appealing resume. I think the most likely Democratic ticket is Clinton-Edwards, with Clinton-Richardson a secondary possibility.
The Republican side is significantly messier. If in doubt, go with the frontrunner, and currently that seems to be Mitt Romney. Romney does have a resume that, on the surface, appears to replicate the successful Reagan formula: former governor of a center-to-left-leaning state who can tack right to appeal to a national GOP audience. Romney, as the apparent establishment candidate, probably benefits from the party’s winner-takes-all delegate selection rules, particularly against a fragmented field where the other candidates generating much excitement–Mike Huckabee and, to a lesser extent, Ron Paul–are out of the National Review-defined party mainstream. Romney’s Achilles heel, however, is that he must win New Hampshire (a virtual satellite of the Boston media market); while the numbers currently show him 15 points clear of McCain and Giuliani, that lead could evaporate down the stretch; if he does stumble, or even if another candidate is within 2-3 points, the Romney anointment could turn real ugly, real quick and the establishment backing might move to Fred Thompson (who may have finally found his legs at the embarrassingly-bad Des Moines Register debate) or McCain. My guess at the ticket: Romney-Thompson, with Romney-Huckabee a possibility if Romney feels his evangelical support is weak.
When it comes down to the general election, I think the fundamentals support a Democratic victory. I also think that Romney is very problematic as a presidential candidate, not only due to his more-liberal record as governor of Massachusetts leaving him open to “flip-flopper” charges but also because of what James referred to yesterday as the “Mormon hurdle”. Romney’s religion is problematic for him on two fronts in the general election: first, because I think many swing voters are increasingly turned off by overt religiosity in the Oval Office, and second I’m not sure if Christian evangelicals–who are quite skeptical of Mormonism–can put aside the serious theological divisions between themselves and Romney, particularly given Romney’s relatively recent conversion to Republican orthodoxy on the social issues that evangelicals care about. The risk for a Romney candidacy is not that these voters will pick Clinton, but simply that they will stay at home.
Clinton is not immune from defections either; the likely nomination of former Georgia representative Cynthia McKinney as the Green Party candidate may attract some black voters and war opponents who are part of the Democratic base she needs to win the general election. And, at some level, Clinton is the best potential nominee for any Republican to face; while the last eight years a Clinton occupied the White House were hardly the pinnacle of New Deal liberalism, many Republicans retain a visceral hatred of both Clintons that any Republican nominee should be able to tap into. But ultimately I think the contest comes down to the voters in the middle, and enough of them are probably ready to let the Democrats and their filibuster-vulnerable majority take the wheel for a while.
Photo source: AP/ABC News