Richard Norton Smith, a historian who has run the presidential libraries of Republicans Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, is pessimistic about the party's prospects. He thinks the correct analogy is not 1988 but 1920 or 1952 -- when an unpopular war and an equally unpopular president spelled doom for the party in the White House. He thinks 2008 is shaping up not only as a narrow defeat for the GOP but a decisive "repudiation."
Many Republicans see Barack Obama as the natural heir of George McGovern -- an antiwar liberal with an avid but narrow base who is perfectly positioned to lose. They are also reminded of Michael Dukakis and his difficulty connecting with white males and working-class voters.
But Smith sees a big difference: In 1988, when Dukakis lost, the outgoing Republican president was popular, with an approval rating above 50 percent. Not so today.
Against trends like this, he strongly doubts that voters will put much weight on factors like Obama's associations with radical preachers or his flag-free lapel. Thanks to the Democratic contest, those matters have been fully aired, without fatal effect, and they are likely to sound stale and irrelevant by November.
In his view, the portents are all ominous for the Republican Party and its nominee. "Why do you think the race started so early? Why do you think turnout has been so high?" he asks. "A desire to put this chapter behind us."
The fallout is already apparent. In recent months, Republicans have lost two special elections to fill seats that had been GOP strongholds. Those shocks prompted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to warn that come November, his party faces the prospect of "a real disaster."
The bad news for Republicans is that objective factors are conspiring to produce a Democratic victory. The good news? If the Democrats can't win this year, they may never.