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Key to winning the White House? Candidates themselves are overrated, says political scientist

U of M's Larry Jacobs
U of M's Larry Jacobs

Today's Pennsylvania primary results are sure to provide fresh grist for the (self-serving and predictable) arguments that Hillary Rodham Clinton needs to get out of the race for the good of the party and that she needs to stay in the race because she would be best able to restore the White House to Dem control.

It's perfectly normal and natural for Democrats (and their enablers in the news media) to obsess over the question of whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton matches up better against John McCain.

After all, trial heat polls suggest that McCain is in a virtual tie with either of the Dems. Obamians and Clintonites each have a list of 20 arguments that their candidate is the more electable. Each new poll, endorsement, speech and gaffe seems to create a new electability argument.

But it's possible — and University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs says it's likely — that the particular candidates, their characters, their records, their issue positions and their latest gaffes are overrated in determining the election outcome. What's underrated? A factor over which the parties and the campaigns have little control: the political environment.

And that's where the news for the Democrats is good, better and best. By pretty much every index that's used to measure the political environment, it favors the Dems, and by more than a little.

Armed with a few Powerpoint slides, Jacobs has been giving a presentation to groups around town about the political lay of the land that makes little mention of the candidates by name. The slides show:

• In a recent CBS/New York Times poll, 81 percent of Americans said the situation in the country has "pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track." Jacobs says that question takes the basic temperature of the public mood. A temperature of 81 percent is "scalding." He's never seen a higher number on this question, which pollsters have asked for decades.

Source: New York Times/CBS News Poll

In 1994, when the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans picked up 54 seats in the U.S. House and eight in the U.S. Senate, the "wrong track" score was in the mid-60s, Jacobs says. A score in the 80s, he says, "is beyond anger; it's rage, a very strong rejection, even a rebellion against the status quo." In partisan terms, the status quo is defined as the party that controls the White House.

• President Bush's disapproval rating in a recent Gallup Poll stood at 64 percent. Bush's disapproval numbers have been in this stratosphere for a while.

At a comparable point in his second term, President Bill Clinton's disapproval rating stood at 36 percent, and President Reagan's was 39 percent. In March of the election year, President Jimmy Carter had a 48 percent disapproval rating. The first President George Bush was at 55 percent. Bear in mind, both Carter and the elder Bush were defeated later in those years.

Of course, no Bush will be on the ballot, except to the degree that Democrats can make Bush McCain's middle name by arguing that his election would amount to a third term for Bush. McCain will walk a tightrope of distancing himself from Bush where possible, while trying not to offend those in the Republican base who still like the president.

Misleading figure
Can that high-wire act work? Says Jacobs:

"The idea that John McCain is going to be able to come in and rebrand the Republican Party right away, given this level of disapproval of President Bush is going to be difficult. Not impossible, but difficult."

• Perhaps in an effort to imply a phony balance between the political standings of the major parties, mainstream media accounts of Bush's poor approval ratings often note that the disapproval rate of the Democratic-controlled Congress is even lower than Bush's. And it is, at 69 percent in a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll that Jacobs shows when he gives his political environment talk.

But it's a misleading figure, he says. Respondents are not asked about their feelings toward a Democratic Congress, only their feelings toward Congress. In the same poll that showed the colossal disapproval rating of Congress, respondents were asked whether they prefer Democrats or Republicans to control Congress. Democrats won that question, 49-to-35 percent.

Jacobs doesn't say this without my asking, but he agreed that it's quite possible the disapproval of Congress — at least among non-Republicans — may be rooted in disappointment that the Congress hasn't more effectively ended various unpopular Bush policies.

• Jacobs' next slide, which he titles "Fire in the Belly," is based on a March CBS poll that asked Americans whether their enthusiasm for voting was higher or lower than usual heading into the election season. Among Dems, 57 percent said, "Higher than usual," compared with 25 percent among Repubs. Among Repubs, 34 percent said they felt less than the usual amount of enthusiasm for voting this year, compared with just 12 percent of Dems who felt that way.

Enthusiasm can rise and fall. Even the most enthusiastic voter only gets one (legal) vote. But the enthusiasm gap, if it persists, is likely to translate into a gap in turnout, in financial contributions, in political volunteerism and, ultimately, to success, Jacobs says.

The idea (which the media have analyzed within an inch of its life) that the continuation of the Clinton-Obama contest may be damaging the Dems' chances this fall is not reflected in Jacobs' indicators. The Obama-Clinton race is "tapping into and maybe even feeding the extraordinary enthusiasm on the Democratic side," Jacobs says. The national audience may have grown weary of the Hillary and Barack Show, but as it moves from state to state, it seems to ignite Democrats to get involved in unprecedented numbers.

• An early 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of respondents identify themselves as Democrats, compared with 37 percent Republicans. That's the largest gap in at least eight years, and may be the single worst indicator for Republican success in 2008.

Pew Research Center

'Things will change'
But Jacobs cautions against anyone taking any of these trends to the bank. The nation's sour mood has plenty to do with the double whammy of an economy sliding into recession and military quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the wars or the economy improve, the mood may change (although those situations could also get worse).

"The data we're seeing now is not predictive," Jacobs says. "Things will change. We've certainly seen many races where the race is shaping up to be very positive for one party and turns out a different way."

He mentioned the famous collapse of the Michael Dukakis campaign of 1988 (Dukakis led by double-digit margins in the spring, and ended up losing to George H.W. Bush by 8 percentage points in the popular vote and a more impressive 426-111 in the electoral vote).

• Jacobs says some political scientists attach so much weight to the political environment that they conclude that campaigns don't matter. Jacobs rejects that view. He mentions the 2006 re-election of Gov. Tim Pawlenty as an example of overcoming a very unfavorable environment for Republicans both nationally and in Minnesota. Pawlenty ran a smart campaign, his DFL opponent Mike Hatch made mistakes and Pawlenty benefited from the presence in the race of Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson.

Jacobs also expects the U.S. Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken to be a test of the power of environment versus political skill. The environment favors Franken, simply because he is a Democrat. Jacobs sees evidence that Coleman has a significant advantage in political skills.

Jacobs' analysis is not surprising, but his main point does tend to get lost in the media obsession with the latest gaffe or "gotcha" found against Obama, Clinton and McCain. If you're deeply interested, the whole tape of our interview is available below. If you hear a woeful sound in the background, it is not the moan of a Republican reacting to Jacob's numbers. It is my dog, John, speaking to a squirrel through the window. John is an independent, who barks at the person, not the party.

Eric Black writes on state and national politics, foreign affairs and other topics. 


Eric Black interviews U of M political scientist Larry Jacobs

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