March 23, 2006 — -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., sit atop their respective fields for the 2008 presidential nominations, according to the debut installment of the ABC News 2008 Invisible Primary Ratings.
Let us move briefly to get the vital history out of the way:
1) No Senator has been elected President of these United States since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
2) 2008 will mark the first presidential election since 1928 in which neither the sitting president nor vice president is running for the job -- creating a wide open contest.
Well, at least wide open enough for a candidate to position himself as the alternative-of-choice to one of the frontrunners.
The Invisible Primary refers to the jockeying for supremacy in the contests to be positioned to be the major party presidential nominees between now and start of the actual caucus and primary voting. Historically, winning the Invisible Primary does not guarantee a candidate a party nomination, but it sure helps. In our inaugural Invisible Primary Ratings of the 2004 cycle (published in the first quarter of 2002), Sen. John Kerry was ranked first and Sen. John Edwards second with 3.05 and 3.2 scores, respectively. Those two men, of course, went on to be the last two Democrats standing in the race for their party's presidential nomination before Kerry selected Edwards as his running mate.
This time, the Warner media boomlet, the Huckabee travel schedule, the Romney/Boston Globe relationship, the Kerry e-mail list, the Giuliani mystery, the Allen biography, the Feingold maverick-dom, the Biden "straight talk," the reemergence of Newt, the Frist frustration, and much more have all been taken into account.
And/but the money potential, national political experience, and name identification status make Sen. McCain and Sen. Clinton the 800-pound elephant and donkey in the room impossible to ignore.
Here are the top-line numbers, followed by the explanations and the breakdown. Remember: These ratings measure the chances of winning party nominations, not of winning the White House.
The ratings reflect a sense of who has "juice" -- a demonstrated ability to elicit favorable attention from critical sectors of the political world, including activists, major fundraisers, and member of the news media who are paying minute daily attention to what has become the earliest and most intense presidential campaign ever at this stage.
Some other points:
First, these ratings are geometric, not arithmetic. Say, for example, that Syracuse is the number one-ranked team nationally in men's basketball, the University of North Carolina is second, and Virginia is third. That doesn't necessarily mean that the gap between Syracuse and North Carolina is the same as the gap between North Carolina and Virginia. The top-rated team might be head and shoulders above the rest of the field, but in the ratings, they still are only one "point" better than number two. Shockingly, that makes these ratings slightly less mathematically rigorous than they might otherwise be. And some candidates might be strong in many categories, but so weak in others as to be potentially disqualifying. For instance, Rudy Giuliani ranks fourth overall, but his views on some social issues make him a long-shot in the eyes of many observers.
Second, we throw the following time dimensions into one blender to come up with the overall ratings: how the candidate has performed over the long haul to date; how the candidate is doing currently; and what potential the candidate has shown, based on everything we've seen so far, to excel in the future.
So, the numbers measure past, present, and future simultaneously.
Third, while there is an inherently subjective element to this, we don't just make this stuff up on hunches. We talk with a broad variety of sources in making our judgments: Washington savants of both parties, real-life activists in real states, interest group chieftains, and strategists for the candidates themselves.
Fourth, we think it is healthy to probe and measure the seekers for the world's most important job all the time, and not wait until the winter of 2008 to start asking questions. We are the Political Unit, not the Policy Unit, but suffice it to say that when the candidates start talking seriously about policy, we will divide our attention between horse race and substance.
With Sens. McCain and Clinton likely to hold onto their frontrunner slots for the foreseeable future, the Invisible Primary largely becomes about the other would-be candidates maneuvering to be viewed as the alternative to them, and about consolidating their positions so that if or when either pace setter falters, or decides not to run, the others can be ready to step into the vacuum.
And the possibility that either or both of the frontrunners ultimately decide not to make the race is real.
Despite the omnipresent reminder about how no sitting president or vice president is running for the first time since 1928, it is important to note that McCain, Clinton, Kerry, and Edwards have all been through at least one presidential campaign in a central manner.
All the other hopefuls will be having their first real exposure to what is quadrennially a very tough and unforgiving process.
It is a multi-dimensional process as well. McCain and Clinton are frontrunners because they are so strong in so many of the categories that make up the Invisible Primary Ratings.
For both parties, we have included the potential candidates we feel are the most likely to run and have the biggest impact on the race. In future editions, as people step up and step back, we will adjust the rosters.
Here are the categories and how the candidates stack up.
Money Potential: Typically, though not always (see: Howard Dean 2004), the candidate who has raised the most money by the time of the Iowa caucuses wins the nomination. This presidential cycle will be different than any other one of the modern era, with the broadly held assumption that most candidates will refuse to take on the federal matching funds (and accompanying spending limits) in order to be competitive through the winter and spring. There are a lot of unknowns here, but just because candidates will feel pressure to raise more money does not mean it will be any easier to do so.
Actual cash in the bank eventually will matter more than the potential to raise it, but until that point, here are some of the questions being asked: How much money can the candidate raise -- in reality, in the candidate's own opinion, and in the opinion of close observers? Has the candidate gotten commitments from heavy-hitter fundraisers? Is he/she funneling money into a re-election campaign fund for 2006 or 2008, which could be rolled into a presidential account? Is he/she making the right stops in New York, Hollywood, Texas, and Miami? Does he/she have his/her own vast personal resources to help fund a run? Who has the personality and savvy to raise "easy" money on the Internet? In any big political campaign, money is one of the three legs of the stool, also known as the "virtuous cycle:" fundraising leads to good press coverage, which leads to better poll numbers, both of which are shown to would-be contributors, leading to more money, to even better coverage and poll numbers, and so on.
Rationale/Issues/Record: One of the heartening aspects of U.S. presidential politics is that voters tend to demand that candidates base their campaigns on something meaningful. A good message is future-oriented and easy to understand, and reflects issues voters care about. And oh, yes, it does help if the candidate actually believes his own message and has been preaching passionately about it for at least a couple of years.
Although Bill Clinton and George Bush made presidential politics a safe venue for discourse on certain crossover issues (the death penalty, welfare reform, balanced budgets, education, immigration etc.), party orthodoxies still exist, of which candidates' past "votes and quotes" and present positions can run afoul. Also, as voters' priorities change in the face of bigger, non-political events like, say, a war or a recession, which candidates are helped, and which are hurt? And where do the candidates fall on the intraparty wedge issues? Is the candidate a member of the "close our borders" caucus? The "get out of Iraq" caucus? Remember: It's more important to have a rationale than detailed issue positions. (And if you don't know the difference, you shouldn't run for president.)
Biography and Spouse: We have learned time and again that biography is not necessarily destiny in presidential politics.
But a good personal narrative (college football player, orphan, son of a mill worker, war hero, and life-saving physician) frames marketable character traits that do much more good than harm. This is especially true in the early voting states when voters are feeling the candidates out in living rooms and coffee shops. Vietnam veterans John McCain and John Kerry introduced the presidential candidate versions of themselves through the biographical lens and it no doubt helped their prospects to some degree. However, John Kerry also learned that if you "live" by biography, you may also "die" by biography.
The candidate's spouse usually has far less of an impact than the mainstream media intimates, unless, of course, that spouse is Bill Clinton. However, you need look no farther than the 2004 general election candidates (and the internal polling from the Bush and Kerry campaigns) to see an example when the spouse can make a ton of difference both externally to the larger American audience and within the campaign operation.
Iowa: Although the Democratic National Committee is expected to allow other states to hold their contests earlier this cycle, the smart money says Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary will retain the lion's share of their dominance of the nominating calendar (as they will for the Republicans as well), holding a disproportionate influence (given their meager number of delegates at stake) on the determination of the nominee.
Winning the largely invisible run-up to the balloting in these two states means building a presence there -- personally, in terms of appearances and local media coverage, and through support from key operatives and elected officials. As the contests draw closer, statewide polling will come to matter, too, in terms of setting expectations.
New Hampshire: Same as Iowa, with local press including the Boston media market and a primary electorate which includes independents.
Other States (In Terms of the Nomination Calendar): Is the candidate methodically building a presence -- through personal appearances and/or support from key local operatives and officials -- in the states whose nominating contests are likely to be in play around the time of Iowa and New Hampshire? The calendar will remain in flux for a bit longer , but as of today, states viewed as likely to fall in here include South Carolina, Michigan, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.
Perceived Electability:On the Democratic side, it's the one of the large questions many Democrats are continuously asking about Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, John McCain, for example, is widely seen as eminently electable in November, it's his ability to win the nomination that may give some question.
The 'Hang' Test: How does the candidate do in dealing with people in person in formal speeches before large audiences, smaller venues, spontaneous situations, pig roasts, sledding, flapjack-flipping, and town meetings? Coat on or off? Tie loosened or tight? Dress or pantsuit? Can the candidate turn on a room? Perhaps most importantly, can he or she "hang?"
Television Campaign Skills: Mastering the medium through which most voters get their information about the candidates -- even in retail-politics states like Iowa and New Hampshire -- is vital. Formal speeches, press conferences, Oprah, and Oprah-like settings usually have in-person audiences, but learning how to sell oneself to the thousands or millions in the local or network TV audience is more important. The same goes for how the candidate does on-camera in paid TV advertising, though those appearances last only a matter of seconds. Forgoing wonky talk and being interesting are good, but having enough experience to not look nervous or rattled is also key.
Wartime Leadership/Anti-terrorism Credentials: What kind of track record does the candidate have on national security issues, both pre- and post-September 11? Has the candidate racked up a bunch of past votes in Congress that an opponent could use to cast him/her as pro-terrorist or anti-defense? Insert Vietnam service or 9/11 leadership here.
Media Coverage: As noted above, good press clips are essential in raising money. They also help a campaign create buzz, hire better staff, and strengthen the perception of electability. ABC News Political Unit Director Mark Halperin's Rule of winning a party nomination: In order for a candidate to win, two national political columnists must openly suggest he/she can, in fact, win the nomination, while also secretly wanting him/her to, plus two national political reporters must also think he/she can become the nominee.
Buzz/Momentum: You know a candidate who's hot when you see him/her, and breaking through to the wider media culture beyond just the political junkies is a sign that a candidate is creating a stir. When things are going well for a campaign, good days get even better, and truly bad days become avoidable. There usually isn't enough political oxygen during the Invisible Primary for more than two or three candidates at a time to enjoy any real momentum.
Netroots: Now that the blogosphere is a fully politically engaged battlefield, Republicans and Democrats will need to court this constituency of party faithful with a keen ability to both influence mainstream media and organize on the ground in states with early nominating contests.
Polling/Name ID: The 2008 cycle will prove challenging for the unknown since several of the candidates (John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and John Edwards) will be quite well known and, thus, will likely stay atop the polls for the great majority of the Invisible Primary season. But we do expect to see some movement among the polls in key states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where the candidates will be spending more and more time. Again, improving standing in the polls usually helps a candidate raise money.
Fire in the Belly: How badly does the candidate want it? How hard is he/she willing to work? Will he/she do "what it takes" to win, including shedding or at least temporarily freeing himself/herself from other responsibilities and distractions? Are they ready to ask strangers for $4,200 contributions and sleep in bad hotels away from the family night after night?
Endorsements: Political insiders and reporters sometimes overestimate how the support of local and national elected officials can affect on voter turnout on Election Day. But winning key endorsements during the Invisible Primary, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, is a great way to attract attention from the media and would-be donors. The first open contest on both sides without a president or vice president in the mix in the last eighty years makes the scramble for endorsements all the more intriguing.
Party Constituencies: The Republican Party faithful come from three main spheres and we'll break this category down as we get closer to 2008. For now, support from evangelical Christian social conservatives, 2nd Amendment libertarian-minded folks, and fiscal conservatives is vital to building a viable candidacy. The Democratic primary electorate hails from many different ethnic, income, and other groups, and we'll break this category down, too, as 2008 approaches. For now, support from labor, African-Americans, Hispanics, women, and Hollywood is vital to building a viable candidacy.
Party Support: Members of the DNC/RNC and the state parties, and their staffs, can give a candidate an edge during the Invisible Primary in the form of information, informal support, and/or endorsements. (Delegate tracking begins long before the voting gets underway.) This year, for the first time in a competitive contest, both parties will have a form of "superdelegates," although Democrats have many more.
Staff/Consultants Which big names among Democratic and Republican consulting and operative circles have signed up with the candidate, either formally or informally? Party pros and fundraisers often see a big staff or consulting hire as a coup signifying that a candidate is legitimate. And of course, in theory, the work and advice of top operatives should be able to help a candidate win both the Invisible Primary and real nomination fight.