2008 Election Prediction: McCain over Clinton

2008 Election Prediction:  McCain over Clinton Predicting the outcome of a messy nominating process weeks before the Iowa Caucuses, much less the presidential election months before the nominees are known, is a fool’s errand. Still, it’s a fun exercise and provides a chance to get away from News of the Day posts.

Despite some recent stumbles, I continue to agree with Dave Schuler that Hillary Clinton remains the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination. While I think Barack Obama or John Edwards would be more attractive general election candidates and that Joe Biden would make a better president, she’s got almost everything going for her: organization, money, momentum, name recognition, and a sense of inevitability.

My sense is that most Democrats would prefer Edwards or Obama — or, heck, Dodd — but want to rally behind a candidate they think can win. Clinton is smart, disciplined, and has the last name “Clinton.” The latter is not an inconsiderable advantage given that the Democrats have won the White House precisely two times in the last seven tries (a span of twenty seven years) and that Bill Clinton accounts for both of those victories. She brings along her husband — two for the price of one, redux — and much of his organization. Simply put, she’s the Democrat best positioned to run a smart, professional race and Democrats are willing to get behind her.

As I’ve noted in previous posts, the polling numbers are very much in her favor as well. There’s been a lot of talk about her losing the aura of invincibility but her lead in the national polls and most state polls remains as strong as ever. Yes, Obama has pulled even in Iowa. But she still dominates in New Hampshire and almost all the other early states.

Obama remains a largely unknown quantity and I continue to believe that his initial popularity represents his ceiling rather than a floor. He’s highly intelligent, charming, and a superb orator and provides a stark contrast to her image as a cold, robotic candidate. But people don’t know what he stands for and he’s doing his best to keep it that way. He won’t get away with that much longer and, inevitably, taking stands will alienate people.

On the Republican side, I’m almost beyond guessing the outcome. Mike Huckabee has come out of nowhere to become a frontrunner while one-time frontrunner John McCain has been left for dead and made a significant comeback all in a span of months. The only thing I’m reasonably confident of is that my initial prediction on Fred Thompson, that he was an empty vessel into which conservatives hungry for another Ronald Reagan were pouring their hopes in vain, seems to be right.

Since we’re playing the prediction game, though, I might as well go against the conventional wisdom. My colleague Alex Knapp predicted on OTB Radio months ago that McCain would rise from the ashes, Phoenix-like, to take the nomination. I’m now inclined to agree with him, mostly because I can’t see any of the others winning.

Mike Huckabee is the latest media darling and he’s suddenly got a plausible path to the nomination: Win Iowa and then have all the social conservatives rally around him. That could happen. After all, Bill Clinton managed to go directly from the Arkansas governor’s mansion to the White House. Still, it appears that there are a lot of skeletons in Huckabee’s closet and I don’t see in him the political skillset that Clinton used to shrug off attacks.

Rudy Giuliani, who not all that long ago was my default choice for the nomination, has been revealed as a one trick pony (Biden’s quip about “a noun, a verb, and 9/11” may be the best line of the campaign to date) and as a potentially dangerous leader. He’s a smart, seasoned executive but has seemingly little regard for checks and balances and other legal niceties. We don’t need more of that. Plus, 9/11 or no, I don’t see him winning over the South and he doesn’t appear to be a sure thing to win in the blue states, either.

Mitt Romney has been my least favorite of the major GOP candidates from the start, largely on grounds I can’t explain. Aside from the dog incident, there’s no reason for me to dislike him but I’ve got the same gut aversion to him as I had about Bill Clinton in early 1992. He just strikes me as smarmy, insincere, and willing to say whatever he needs to get elected.

His plan was to go all-in for Iowa and New Hampshire, win both, and then use that to create a sense of inevitability and run the table. It’s now looking quite likely that he’ll lose both. If that happens, he’s toast.

Plus, I think his handling of the Mormon issue will be a deal-breaker in the South.

That leaves McCain. The polls show him in 5th place nationwide at the moment (albeit in a statistical tie for third). He’s managed to alienate much of the Republican nominating electorate. And he made a strategic decision to blow off Iowa, thus ensuring that he will get out of the gate slowly.

His decision to try to stake his claim, again, via New Hampshire was looking like a failed strategy a couple of months ago but recent polls show him closing the gap. He’s in a distant second behind Romney right now and Huckabee is right on his tails. Then again, I don’t see many New Hampshirites pulling their lever for Huckabee and Romney’s Favorite Son status could take a hit if the wheels come off in Iowa.

Giuliani will likely take Michigan but then there’s the long trek through the South, beginning with South Carolina, and West, including California. If Thompson throws in with McCain after New Hampshire — which seems likely if McCain wins there or at least seems viable — then it could get interesting.

Huckabee is a natural in the South, to be sure, and McCain isn’t. But that’s also the part of the country where his military service and strong commitment to national security will do him the most good. By contrast, Huckabee should look like a lightweight. Indeed, all the others look inexperienced next to McCain.

A McCain-Clinton matchup would be interesting. Both candidates have considerable experience on the national stage and are able campaigners unlikely to make debilitating gaffes. Ultimately, though, I think McCain would come out ahead.

During times where national security is on the radar screen, Republicans traditionally have an advantage. This would be especially true with McCain, a career naval officer who knows full well the horrors of war, running against a relative novice in military affairs who seems to have no real vision in that arena.

There are, obviously, a whole lot of If’s in the above scenario and I’m not at all confident that things will play out this way. It’s my best guess, though, based on what we know now.

Others playing: Dave Schuler

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    I too am curious whether McCain can pull it off, but he’s kinda old at this point and viscerally unpopular with the Repub base – to their discredit, since he’s thoroughly conservative.

    I wonder if we’re going to see the GOP go into its convention with no clear winner?

  2. Triumph says:

    2008 Election Prediction: McCain over Clinton

    Has OTB turned into the Onion?!? Nice one!

    In the spirit of your levity, I’m picking Gravel to beat Duncan Hunter. We’ll get another 2000-type recount, except this time it will be in Alaska. It will come down to a manual recount in Pitkas Point which will be surrounded by Gravel’s goon squad, preventing the Murkowski machine from disrupting proceedings.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    As I suggested in my prediction post, I think that McCain is the Republicans’ smart bet. Largely for that reason I don’t think they’re going to go that way. Too many Republicans just seem to have a very strong (and, in my belief, irrational) aversion to John McCain. If Republicans can convince themselves that losing is just as good as, maybe even better than, winning, they’ll follow Huckabee.

    I don’t think they’re that crazy so it’s between Giuliani and Romney and I see Romney as coming closer to the profile of the typical Republican candidate than Giuliani does.

  4. legion says:

    Well, I don’t have a firm opinion on who’s most likely to win the Dem nomination yet, but I agree that McCain’s the most likely for the GOP. Why? Well, as I said a few threads below, he had his moment in the sun & got plastered. Ever since then he’s had the sense to keep his head down & his mouth largely shut, letting other candidates take the lumps traditionally delivered to the front-runner. Fred Thompson’s out. A lot of behind-the-throne types want him to be the man, but he clearly isn’t into it – no matter how good your charisma is, you still need _something_ to actually talk about. Even Reagan knew that. As for Mitt, he’s way too schizo in his positions to be considered ‘solid’ enough for the GOP base to trust. If he had real experience in national-level politics, like McCain, he’d be keeping his head down now too, letting everyone take shots at Huckabee. Instead, he’s out making speeches, drawing attention to his single weakest point (at least for the primaries). And Rudy’s just a colossal train wreck. Not only does he not have the experience to keep his mouth shut, he’s too egotistical and frankly, too stupid also.

    So barring a Dean-style meltdown or magic skeleton coming out of his closet, yeah – McCain’s the GOP nom.

  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    Want to double down and predict the VP picks?

  6. Bob says:

    I think that McCain will end up as the Pres nominee on the Republican ticket. He’s serious and he’ll be very difficult for Hillary to attack because he’s been engaged on immigration, campaign finance reform, plus mil experience. But I think this will be a hard swallow for conservatives so I think they will take quite a number of primaries before they decide on the adult candidate. Hillary’s a lock because of machine and money she has.

    The fascinating piece will be to see who gets the VP nod because I think it will cast a big shadow on election and results. Gore and Cheney have elevated the VP visibility if not stature.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    My only thoughts on the Vice Presidency is that Hillary Clinton would be imprudent to offer Barack Obama the job and Barack Obama would be imprudent to accept it.

  8. Anderson says:

    I think we’re confusing our own preferences with what’s gonna happen. McCain is the most sensible candidate. When was the last time the most sensible candidate got elected?

    Re: Obama, if he loses to Hillary, he is going to need to make a very clear statement that he does or does not want the veep slot. Imagine the damage to Hillary if she’s perceived as slighting him & giving a white guy the slot.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    I think we’re confusing our own preferences with what’s gonna happen.

    Not me. I don’t want either Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney as president.

  10. Anderson says:

    Not me. I don’t want either Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney as president.

    Ha! Dave does indeed have the strength to stare the abyss in the face.