The presidential election will occur on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008, less than a year from now. Because the candidates have been campaigning for 11 months, we already know quite a lot about the likely outcome.
There are three front-runners in the competition for the Democratic presidential nomination: New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, and former Sen. John Edwards. Sen. Clinton has run a strong campaign, performed well in the Democratic presidential debates, and gradually pulled away from her competitors. The latest polls indicate Ms. Clinton has the support of 44 percent of Democrats, followed by Obama with 25 percent, Edwards with 14 percent, and the other candidates trailing far behind. While her favorability ratings continue to worry some political observers—78 percent of Republicans view her negatively—they’ve improved as the campaign as progressed.
The race for the Republican nomination is closer. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani maintains a narrow lead over three other major GOP candidates: former Sen. Fred Thompson, former Gov. Mitt Romney, and Arizona Sen. John McCain. Among GOP faithful there is a notable lack of enthusiasm for any of the front-runners: Giuliani is seen as too liberal, Thompson as too lethargic, Romney as too “extreme”—he’s a Mormon, and McCain as too erratic.
Although he isn’t doing well in the national polls, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is showing surprising strength in Iowa, the first primary state, where he’s running in second place behind Mitt Romney. Both the economic and social conservative wings of the GOP like Huckabee—he’s an ordained Southern Baptist Minister. If Huckabee is among the top three Republican candidates in Iowa, his candidacy will attract more money.
So far, the Democratic primary has been relatively tame: there have been few of the personal attacks that often characterize these contests. That will change in the general election, as Republicans view Sen. Clinton as a prime target for attack. Rudy Giuliani has based much of his campaign on the contention that he is the best alternative to Ms. Clinton as her “liberalism” would be bad for America.
Nonetheless, after the summer Democratic and Republican conventions, the battle for president will likely be waged on issues as much as personality. There are huge differences between the Democratic and Republican positions on the top concerns.
The preeminent item will be Iraq, where Democrats favor a staged withdrawal and Republicans want U.S. forces to remain until they “win.” The most important domestic issue is healthcare, where Democrats favor a national plan that protects most Americans, particularly children, and Republicans oppose this as “socialized medicine.” The two parties also differ on the economy: Democrats want the federal government to take action to ensure Americans have access to good jobs and Republicans believe the solution is more tax cuts. As regards immigration, Democrats favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and most Republicans don’t.
There are also clear differences on the other issues likely to be discussed in stump speeches and candidate debates. Democrats favor exploration of alternatives to fossil fuel, rebuilding America’s transportation infrastructure, and encouraging conservation by actions such as raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards; Republicans want regulations removed so energy companies can dig and drill anywhere in the United States. While Americans are worried about the possibility of another terrorist attack, there is disagreement about how much power to grant the president to pursue terrorists: Republicans favor granting the executive branch of government carte blanche, letting the White House do whatever it feels is necessary to thwart attacks: even if this means spying on average Americans, torturing suspects, or denying suspects due process. All Americans worry about education, but Republicans see the problem as a simple matter of setting standards and punishing poor performing schools. Democrats view education as a system that involves elements such as nutrition, family support, teacher training, and funds to improve the educational infrastructure.
Republicans favor government involvement in important personal decisions such as family planning and end-of-life arrangements; Democrats believe these should remain private matters. Finally, Americans are concerned about the environment whether in the form of local pollution issues or the menace of global climate change. Republicans remain passive on environmental issues arguing either that environmental catastrophe has been overstated or the best solution is to let the market respond. Democrats take a more active stance and want the federal government to act both in the form of regulation and also incentives to encourage citizens and corporations to take environmentally beneficial actions.
It appears that the 2008 presidential election will pit Hillary Clinton against Rudy Giuliani: two candidates seen as “flawed” by members of their respective parties. Although the presidential campaigns will feature virulent attacks on both Clinton and Giuliani, the primary focus will be on issues, the dramatic difference in philosophy between Republicans and Democrats. On this basis, Senator Clinton will probably prevail, as her positions are closer to the American mainstream.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.