Can a Republican Win the Presidential Race in 2008?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 10, 2007 · 11:02 PM EST

I find questions about whether Democrats can really win the White House in 2008 almost incomprehensible. The far, far better question is whether the Republicans can win the White House almost two years from now.

As we begin the 2008 election cycle, we all ought to be on the same page when it comes to expectations. Whether you are hoping that Republicans maintain their hold on the White House or believe that it’s important for a Democrat to sit in the Oval Office in 2009, it’s pretty clear that the 2008 presidential election is the Democrats’ to lose.

Put another way, while we don’t yet know the nominees or the specific circumstances that will shape the next election — all of which, of course, are important considerations in handicapping the 2008 race — the burden is on the GOP to overcome history if it is to retain the White House.

Only once in the past 50 years, in 1988, has a political party won a third consecutive four-year presidential term. That’s not an accident. It’s the result of inevitable voter fatigue and impatience, as well as the public’s (and media’s) desire for periodic change.

Obviously, Republican George H.W. Bush’s 1988 victory after eight years of Ronald Reagan shows that it’s not impossible for one party to win a third straight term in the White House. But it is inherently difficult to do so, and one would expect it to be even more difficult when the man exiting the White House is widely unpopular. (Before the Reagan-to-Bush handoff, the last time a sitting president was succeeded by a member of his own party was in 1929, when Calvin Coolidge passed the keys to the White House to Herbert Hoover.)

Next year, voters are likely to be receptive to another message of change, but this time it will be directed toward the White House, not Capitol Hill.

President George W. Bush won’t be running again, and nobody from his administration will be carrying the party’s banner in 2008, so the eventual Republican nominee won’t be saddled with the Bush administration’s legacy quite the way Al Gore was hampered during his 2000 presidential bid by some of President Bill Clinton’s behavior in office.

But voters may still want to send a message of change, and with a Republican having served eight years as the nation’s chief executive, the next GOP nominee inevitably will be burdened by the Bush record.

A dramatic improvement in Bush’s standing in national polls surely would help the eventual GOP ticket in 2008, but even that wouldn’t erase all the baggage that the president and his party have picked up since 2001. Given that few people believe that U.S. forces will be entirely out of Iraq by 2008, some of the issues that dogged Republicans for the past couple of years are likely to be around by then.

The two Republican frontrunners for their party’s nomination, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have some space to run as candidates for change and as political outsiders. McCain’s political independence on Capitol Hill is well-known, while Romney has never served in the nation’s capital.

But even McCain and Romney could rather easily be defined as “more of the same,” if only because of their political party affiliation. Last year, Democrats successfully linked more than a few Republicans to Bush, even though some of them disagreed with the president on key issues or had built strong records of serving their constituents.

It is of course true that midterm elections inherently are referendums on sitting presidents, while voters see presidential elections as more of a choice between nominees and the visions for the future they offer. That’s the good news for Republicans.

But Democrats are better positioned to sell their nominee as a force for change, even though the party is likely to control both the House and the Senate when the 2008 campaigns and elections occur. The Senate majority will include Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who isn’t exactly a new face and who carries some of her own political baggage, and any number of other Democrats who will be able to run against the previous eight years.

Since the Democratic nominees from 2000 and 2004, Gore and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), respectively, came within a hair of winning the White House — and some even think they did win — it isn’t difficult to imagine a credible Democratic nominee carrying the Electoral College in 2008.

Obviously, events that take place over the next two years will have a profound impact on the 2008 presidential race, making it impossible to handicap the contest at this point. But given the closeness of the past two presidential contests, the difficulty of one party winning three consecutive elections and Bush’s poll numbers, the Democratic nominee ought to have a small but clear advantage as the ’08 race begins.