03/28/2008 02:45 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Handicapping The Election: Crystal Balls, Ouija Boards and the Three Long, Long Months 'Til February 5th

2007-10-31-HalpAltRath.JPGToday's AMC "Handicapping the 2008 Election" panel got underway late, which meant it was short, because it stopped promptly at 11:45 am so moderator Dan Rather and panelist Mark Halperin of Time could hurry off and catch their respective planes. Even so, they, along with Newsweek's Jonathan Alter managed to have a wide-ranging discussion that touched on the candidates (Hillary! Obama! Hillary ! Giuliani!), the "inevitability" of certain Candidates Who Shall Go Unmentioned (and their perhaps overconfident parties); the compressed caucus schedule (but the Madeleine L'Engle-worthy political clock), and Halperin's new book, The Undecided Voter's Guide to the Next President — because, hey, this particular gang of 500 magazine industry machers has some clout, too. Free copies! Here are a few takeaways:
  • Vote early and often! Dan Rather's opening and closing caution: "Not a single vote has been cast anywhere yet...right now it's guesswork." (As we assumed earlier, Rather did indeed repeat a number of his observations from last night's dinner at this panel.) Another one, regarding Hillary Clinton and the "aura of inevitability" that she and her staff are trying to cultivate, goes back to his caveat about no votes being cast: "Beware," said Rather, "of inevitablity."

  • Rather on Romney: "I think Mitt Romney is an undervalued stock." Why? Three reasons: (1) He has a very early edge in New Hampshire — almost a "home" state thanks to Romney's Massachusetts governorship (and actual home status since he has a summer home in NH); (2) Rather looks at politicians and asks, who seems to be the best organized? Who seems to have an overarching strategy? Romney's machine runs smoothly and efficiently (cf. Ana Marie Cox on Romeny press sec Kevin Madden in Time); and (3) Observes Rather: "Tall good-looking men sometimes do well in elections."

  • Conventional Wisdom - Down: Jonathan Alter explains the genesis of the Newsweek CW rankings, giving a nod to Rick Smith chairman and editor in chief (present at the conference, and presumably in the audience), saying it was basically a way to reduce the stupid chatter to a little box (that's almost a direct quote) (alas, I could not figure out how to reduce this blog post to a little box).

  • Whither Gore? Rather said he had been talking to James Carville, who told him there was a 25% chance that Gore will enter the race. (Because, you know, Carville is a scientist, so you can rely on that meticulously-arrived-at number. Sheesh.) Halperin quipped that with Carville it was less talking than listening (appreciative chuckle from crowd) and then said that, with "three titan candidates" in Hillary, Barack Obama and John Edwards (he noted that yes, he'd include Edwards here), " I don't think Al Gore thinks he can come in — and the polls don't suggest he can come in — and shake this race up."

  • Giuliani = Voldemort? Rather asked his panelists if they expected the election to be about "Who can best protect you against terrorists?" Alter noted that terrorism as the hot-button issue waxed and waned, saying that there was more than that at play in this election — which means that "a dark candidate of fear" like Giuliani — his words — is less appealing to America than "a light candidate of hope." (Uh, oh, there goes Rudy's entire platform.) That would change, obviously, if there were a terrorist attack in the next year.

  • Alter Hearts Huckabee; McCain and that Old-Car Smell: Alter backed this up by producing said candidate of hope...Mike Huckabee. He thinks Huckabee could be number TWO on the ticket (though he's got an uphill battle because in the Republican party "a lack of money is seen as a character flaw"). Still, said Alter: "I think he would actually be the strongest general-election candidate for the Republicans...likeable candidates who talk in a hopeful way and connect, and speak 'American' do better. And of all these candidates, he speaks American the best - he's got a more common touch than Romney, he's not as dark as Giuliani." Meanwhile, said Alter, Cain, whom the CW once considered to be the most generally-electable now "feels like your fathers Oldsmobile" and Fred Thompson has to "bring up his game real fast" but right now for the gneral election he feels like the worst option because he's jut not on that "track." Halperin disagrees on Huckabee, saying that he "hasn't put forth any ideas tha have caught on" and just isnt' in the game. (As for Thompson, if you want to hear Halperin's thoughts on that turn to page 162 of his book, "Why Thompson Can't Win A General Election.")

  • Rather on inevitability, Part II: "A lot of Democrats are convinced that they'll win this next year. I would caution against this - my crystal ball is permanently in the hot shop... This is NOT a given. Put me on record as saying, the Republicans CAN win this next year." Cracked Halperin (who was very jokey, by the way) "I don't use a crystal ball, I use an abacus and a Ouji (sic) board" — so instead of predicting, he crunched the numbers: "It's very hard for any Democratic candidate, let alone a polatirizing candidate like Hillary Clinton, to get 50% of the vote...and that means they've got a ceiling." Which means that the margin of non-damaging error is actually pretty slim. Translation: Anything can still happen! Things are very exciting!


  • A Wrinkle in (Political) Time (or, another meaning for "Dog Days"): Per Alter: "Time in politics is something that I think Einstein would have been interested in - it's bent." In the Alter Formulation™ a year in politics is equal to 3 or 4 years, a week equals a month, and the last few days before the election stretch into a slow-moving anything-can-still-happen-and-just-might time warp. But - the flipside: The contracted primary schedule means that there is less time for all of this to happen in — and no time to recover lest something go wrong. Per Halperin: "Iowa is important for the Republicans; it's EVERYTHING for the Democrats. If John Edwards wins Iowa, he lives to fight another day. If Hillary takes it, it's a lock - but as we've seen, when frontrunners fall in Iowa or New Hamshire...." Alter finishes for him: "Were Hillary to go down, she's gonna go down HARD. There's no time to recover."

  • I'm pretty sure he read this on Facebook: "Social networking is huge," says Alter, and he reminds the crowd that Obama is the master of that particular domain: "If Obama is to win in Iowa — and that's a huge if — it will be because [Obama and his team] have figured out how to use social networking to change the game on the ground."

  • Halperin's Dirty Little Secret: MH points out that the "dirty little secret" of the season, and that's the power of the press here, in the form of "setting expectations" here for candidates. He joked that "The press hasn't really had our secret meeting at the Palm" to collude on what those expectations are — the reality behind the joke being that groupthink can solidify into conventional wisdom given enough time. Here, with less time during the primary season, that may change (but NB, I will point out that less time is needed now because the speed of information exchange and that concomitant solidifcation has increased exponentially - hell, Halperin said this just two hours ago and I already feel like I'm late in posting it.)

  • "Follow The Dollar": Rather rounds it up: "Overnight is a long time, and a week is forever... Don'tn forget February 5th has been mentioned twice here - unless there's a cataclysmic event, that's the ball game." But he returns to his bedrock point: "Don't forget that not a single vote has been cast." To the crowd, in the meantime, he offers this advice: "In journalism, the old saw: Follow the dollar... Read the stories about who is giving the money — and what they expect to get for it — in what will amount to our first 2 billion dollar presidential campaign."

  • We did come in late, admittedly, but here's a name we didn't hear mentioned once: Bill Richardson.