A Strange Election Awaits

We are living through some very strange times in American politics. That was the message veteran political consultant Charlie Cook gave to attendees at the Financial Advisor Symposium in Chicago on October 10.


Cook began by noting that the balance of power that favored the Republicans for much of the last 30 years shifted towards the Democrats in 2006. It did so, even though the Democrats failed to produce a compelling agenda or clear vision. They still managed to pick up six U.S. Senate seats and 30 Congressional seats, and in areas like the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic, they reduced the GOP to marginal status, just as the Republicans had done to them in the South over several decades. Also in 2006, the Democrats expanded their razor-thin 0.1% advantage among the 7,382 elected state legislature positions to 8% or 54% versis 46%.

Cook said that the Republican Party bears many similarities to a venerable corporate brand that has been tarnished and needs to be repositioned or rebranded. The war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina destroyed their image as the party of competence. Going into 2008, Republicans face an uphill playing field. With 22 Senate seats up for grabs, many observers think Democrats could emerge with 57 or 58 seats in the chamber.

So why does Cook think the GOP has a 40% chance of retaining the White House under such circumstances? Partly because he is still amazed at how easily the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, or H-Rod as he called her, is steamrolling over her competition.
Like many political handicappers, Cook never thought H-Rod stood a chance at the presidency. Indeed, former presidential advisor David Gergen, speaking at a TD Ameritrade conference in early 2005, gave her a 3% chance of recapturing the White House for the Democrats.
Many Democrats are hardly thrilled with Sen. Clinton. Her top opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, leads her by 1% among college graduates but trails her by 16% among those with some college and by 26% among those with no college. But the older the Democrat, the more inclined they are to favor her-and the more likely they are to vote. Moreover, she has run the best organized, focused and disciplined campaign-traits not usually associated with Democrats, including her husband-that Cook has seen since Nixon ran in 1972.

Cook compared the Republican campaign to a game of Survivor with good candidates each facing insurmountable obstacles. Yet someone has to win. Cook, who once gave front-runner Rudy Giuliani a greater chance of winning the Tour de France than the GOP nomination, no longer thinks that's impossible.

However, he picks Mitt Romney for several reasons-namely the most brains, the most money and the best organization. Other Republican candidates like Fred Thompson have failed to live up to their billing as the next Reagan or, in the case of Sen. John McCain, aren't helped by a maverick image and a close association with the Iraq war, Cook said.

The primaries are only a few months away, but the election is still one year from now, so a lot can and will happen. My own guess is that Giuliani would be a more formidable candidate than Romney because he's capable of beating Clinton in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and staunching the GOP retreat in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. But that's just a guess.

Evan Simonoff