Presidential Races Taking on Chess Match Quality

by Stuart Rothenberg July 3, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

As in chess, where a competitor decides what to do based on his or her opponent’s moves, Republican and Democratic primary voters and caucus attendees are likely to spend as much time in 2007 and early 2008 watching their opponents as thinking about their own choices.

Since both parties are placing an unusually high priority on nominating candidates who can beat the other’s nominee, activists in each party are likely to base their decisions to an unusual degree on what the other party seems to be doing.

Each Democratic activist has his or her own favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2008, but almost universally, politically sophisticated Democrats have become so frustrated with their losses in 2000 and 2004 and so angry after six years of George W. Bush as president that they aren’t willing to nominate someone they see as destined to lose in ’08, even if they like that candidate’s message or the symbolism of his or her election.

Many Republicans feel the same way. Even conservatives seem willing to support a nominee with whom they don’t entirely agree, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, if that is the only way to guarantee that New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton — and her husband, former President Bill Clinton — don’t return to the White House.

“Electability” apparently played a significant role in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, especially in Iowa, where Democrats concluded that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) would make a more formidable nominee than former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. But it’s likely to be an even bigger factor in 2008.

This circumstance is possible only because neither party has a president seeking re-election or a sitting vice president seeking the White House. The heightened level of partisanship and bitterness also increases the likelihood of strategic voting by Democrats and Republicans during their processes of selecting nominees, since the stakes are seen as so high in ’08.

On the surface, the electability argument should help McCain, who is widely regarded as the GOP hopeful with the broadest general election appeal, even if elements of his own party find him unreliable.

And it has: Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a strong critic of the Arizona Republican when Lott was his party’s Senate Majority Leader, says quite openly that he’s backing McCain because he believes the Arizonan has the best chance of keeping the White House in GOP hands.

For the Democrats, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) should be helped by the electability argument, since each has won in a red state and since both men are regarded as more moderate (and therefore have broader appeal) than other likely Democratic contenders.

But neither party can be entirely sure of what the other one will do since both parties will be making decisions at the same time.

This circumstance makes for a Rube Goldberg-like flow chart of possibilities.

Most Republicans in Iowa and other early primary and caucus states probably would be more comfortable with the views and style of Sen. George Allen (Va.) than with that of McCain. But when electability becomes a factor, Allen’s appeal is diluted. That could change, however, if Democrats select a nominee whom Republicans consider unelectable. In that case, conservative Republicans might be more willing to stand with Allen, believing that he could win the general election.

Similarly, if electability were not an issue, Sen. Clinton would be the clear (though not necessarily prohibitive) favorite to win her party’s nomination. But if they conclude she cannot win a general election in 2008, it’s difficult to see Democrats nominating her.

And if Clinton doesn’t appear to be headed for the Democratic nomination in early January 2008 — and especially if Democrats seem likely to nominate a true moderate — Republicans might not feel compelled to nominate McCain, who now is widely viewed as able to “save” the country from the New York Democrat.

This interdependence — with each party looking at the other and trying to figure out who will win its caucuses and primaries — creates the possibility that the two races could take unpredictable and dramatic turns in a very short period of time.

A Des Moines Register poll of likely caucus attendees or a Manchester Union-Leader survey of likely primary voters could turn not merely one contest on its head, but two.

A poll showing Clinton doing poorly in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, for example, could create a bounce for Allen or even for Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney among Republicans, since it would appear to lessen the possibility that Democrats would nominate the New York Senator, the candidate Republicans most distaste.

But an Allen surge in polling could, in turn, boost Clinton’s prospects, since she certainly would run stronger against the Virginia Senator (in the sense that she’d be viewed as more electable by Democrats) than she would against McCain.

Similarly, the Democratic caucus results in Iowa could affect GOP primaries down the road, boosting some candidates and undermining others.

Then there is the whole issue of who will get the votes of New Hampshire’s independents, an important group in that state. Since those voters can choose which party primary to vote in, there could be a fight among both Republican and Democratic moderates (McCain and Warner, for example) for that vote — a fight that could well depend on electability within each party.

At this point, predictions about who will be nominated by both parties are premature, even silly. But it seems likely that electability will play a greater role in both parties’ decisions than in the past, and that development could create some unusual twists and turns during the last few months of 2007 and the first couple of 2008.