Handicapping the Democratic Presidential Hopefuls

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET
  • John Zogby Former president and CEO, Zogby International

I have been watching the national political scene for decades, and we have been probing the minds of the American electorate for well over a year on the 2008 race for the White House. As we head into the fall before the caucuses and primaries begin, I decided to stop and take a look at the landscape. In this posting, I focus on the Democrats. In another coming soon, I will write about the Republicans.

The Democrats

  • Hillary Rodham Clinton: She is clearly the frontrunner and I have learned over the years to never bet against a Clinton. Based on solid historical data, I didn't think she could win in New York in 2000 and I have since learned that there are two political playbooks in the U.S. today: One marked "The Clintons" and the other, "We Mortals." On the pro side, Clinton has experience, the flexibility to sense where the firestorm of criticism may be coming from and to adjust her message and demeanor, her husband as both the sharpest political mind in the nation today and as a personality to rally the Democratic base, and considerable charm that wears well with her obvious intelligence. She has also neutralized to a great degree the doggedness and arrogance that led to the defeat of her health-care plan in 1994. As for cons, she is the lightning rod and can energize the other side to come out to vote against her. Questions abound among Democrats as to whether she can win. And perhaps most significantly, a 2008 voter will have to be at least 46 years of age to have cast a ballot in a presidential election where a Bush or a Clinton wasn't an option. So a campaign that argues for a fresh face and a different kind of experience might hurt her. (Likely scenario: She runs and wins two terms as president, then serves one term as chairman of the Federal Reserve, then converts to Catholicism and rides out her final years as Pope).
  • Barack Obama: One of Clinton's great misfortunes this year is that she is vying for the nomination against both modern-day Jack and Bobby Kennedys. Obama is the new Jack Kennedy, voters tell us. On the pro side, he is electric, generates a message of hope that is particularly appealing to younger voters (who will vote in very large numbers in 2008), and has an ability to raise an enormous amount of money from tens of thousands of donors to match Clinton. He beams a message of change, presents a new face to the world and has opposed the war in Iraq more strongly than Clinton. Cons: You do have to wince when he cites his history as a community organizer in Chicago as an example for making tough decisions. (Full disclosure: I too was a community organizer and it was a wonderful experience, but I am not running for president).
  • John Edwards: He is the modern-day Bobby Kennedy. Pros - he is very good at this. He draws good crowds, good endorsements, has a great stump speech that is meaningful to both the middle class and the working poor about "Two Americas," is running on the left, which could work well among Iowa and New Hampshire voters, and he has his wife, who is brilliant, articulate, and vulnerable. Together, they have Ann Coulter, who has helped them raise significant sums of money. As for cons, while he is right in the pack in Iowa, his national polls are drifting down and cast a shadow on his candidacy. He absolutely must win Iowa, or there is not a next day for him. Even if he does, would he get enough of the "Three M's" - Media, Money, and Momentum - to have enough to proceed into the next states? Remember states like Florida, New York, California and Michigan (plus many others) will hold primaries and caucuses by February 5 and lots of money for television will be needed.
  • Bill Richardson: Pros - he has a rich and varied experience as a legislator, a Cabinet member, a diplomat and now a governor (of an important swing state). He has a strong record of cutting taxes in New Mexico and receives kudos from many Republicans. He is the only Hispanic candidate in a year when the Hispanic vote will grow in numbers again and should be a windfall for the Democrats. As for cons, while he is gaining ground in Iowa polls, he is still in fourth place and he is deeply disliked by his former colleagues in Congress who suggest privately that they might actively campaign against him.
  • Joe Biden and Chris Dodd: These are two gifted, articulate and experienced U.S. senators. They in fact are the "turn-key" candidates, meaning they could easily walk into the White House in January 2009 and get right down to business. They could also cross the aisle and work with Republicans. But thus far they are both stuck in low single digits and it will be difficult for them to break away with Democrats giving so much support to the Big Three in the race.
  • Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel: These are Movement candidates. Kucinich is out there to build a stronger left in the party and to use the opportunity to focus on issues close to the hearts of antiwar, pro-environment, labor and civil rights groups. If he can hit 10 percent in Iowa or New Hampshire, he will have made a point.
  • Gravel, an impressive former senator best remembered for having read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record is the bona fide curmudgeon in the race and has gotten a few good one-liners in.
  • Al Gore: He is not likely to enter, but if one of the main candidates fails this fall and Gore receives a Nobel Prize - to go along with an Oscar and Emmy - he is the one fresh face (how's that for irony) that can raise the money, project the global warming issue and be 100 percent pure on Iraq. He also has many years of experience in and out of government, is a successful businessman, and his hands are clean for the past seven years.