The Top 10 Things to Know About '08

Posted: Nov 10, 2007 12:00 AM
The Top 10 Things to Know About '08
With less than two months to go until the Iowa Caucuses, there is plenty we can learn from the doings of the fullest field of Presidential candidates in modern history. As my fellow blogger Soren Dayton is fond of pointing out, "Elections are experiments." We get to see, in real world practice, what works and what doesn't. The lessons themselves are revealing and well worth memorializing.

If you're angling for a spot as campaign manager for one of the 2012 or 2016 campaigns, here are the top ten things you'll learn from 2008 (so far).

10. Politics Abhors a Vacuum. Earlier in the year, conservatives anguished over the choice of "Rudy McRomney." The conspicuous absence of a reliable conservative from the GOP's top tier created a huge vacuum that Fred Thompson tried to fill, but ultimately couldn't. Enter Mike Huckabee, who seems destined to play a major role in Iowa.

While social conservatives probably won't get their top choice at the end of the day, the rise of Mike Huckabee proves that politics abhors a vacuum. There was ample room for a social conservative to run well in Iowa, and odds are that will happen in one way or another.

9. Announcement Bumps Always Fade, But... Check out RealClearPolitics's polling charts
for the Republican nomination. When Rudy "announced" in the winter he got a bump. When Fred announced in September he got a bump. Mitt's first place showing in Ames, followed by a poll bump, was in many ways his national coming-out.

All of these bumps faded, but the size of the bump tells you something about the resiliency of each of the campaigns. When Rudy announced, he led big. Likewise, Fred's September bump also showed his potential for gathering wide support, though it wasn't as pronounced as Rudy's. By comparison, Senator McCain received no bump from his April announcement, an omen that probably foreshadowed the wheels coming off of his campaign machine.

8. Get In Early. Newt Gingrich and Fred Thompson banked on a surge of frustration with the GOP frontrunners to fuel their late-starting candidacies. And for a time, Thompson biding his time looked like a brilliant strategy.

In Newt's case, the takeaway is that you can't influence events from the periphery; the longer he waited, the more his influence waned. It's also easy to say that Thompson peaked too soon. But that isn't the whole story: Presidential campaigns are massive undertakings, their first few moves filled with missteps and rookie mistakes. You want all the time you can get to be able to work out the kinks. In Fred's case, he had to deal with staff turmoil and other similar distractions through the summer and well into the fall, while other campaigns got this out of their systems early on. And it hurt him.

7. Second Timers Don't Win. This one hasn't always held true, but the new environment of permanent campaigns is writing a new rule for Presidential candidacies: one strike and you're out (unless you get elected VP). The fact that the Johns (Edwards and McCain) have had so much trouble catching on is directly related to the lack of mystique surrounding their candidacies. They're yesterday's news, and were best known for losing. Meanwhile, candidates with a combined six years in statewide office (Romney and Obama) rank near the top of their respective fields. Edwards in particular benefited from this dynamic the last time around, and is its chief victim in '08.

6. Nice Guys Finish Last. The polls say that the public despises negative politics. The polls are wrong.

In an 8-second soundbite universe, new information is king and attacks always make the news. So while it's true that the public may not like hearing slashing attacks, new attacks always have more legs than recycled positives.

Barack Obama has tried to stay above the fray, embracing a "politics of hope" and until recently limiting his attacks on Hillary Clinton to the notion that she was too polarizing. The result: he stayed flat while she surged ahead. Politics is about conveying the reasons why voters should vote for you
and no one else. (The media loves covering the last part.) Being Miss Congeniality gets you nowhere.

5. Be the Guy (or Gal) People Want to Vote For. Emotion, charisma, and nostalgia are still huge factors in driving the vote. Committed observers of politics disparage this basic fact -- while candidates who are able to establish an emotional connection with the voters keep laughing all the way to the White House.

Hillary continues to romp thanks to Democratic nostalgia for Bill despite lingering doubts about her electability. Mike Huckabee, who's good with a quip, edged the more rigorous Sam Brownback out of the race. The pro-choice Giuliani thrived while the pro-life McCain tanked because of the connection the former built with Americans on 9/11. Appeals to reason increasingly fall on deaf ears. That sounds like a stinging indictment, but it's not. It's simple reality. And smart politicians need to adapt to it.

4. You Actually Have to Want the Job.
Personally, I have no opinion on the burning question of whether or not Fred Thompson wants the Presidency or not. But you have to admit that the perception that he doesn't, combined with some prominent un-dorsements related to this supposed lack of fire in the belly, have created their own reality on this point.

Voters ultimately respect candidates who do what it takes to win. They may not savor the particulars or the negative ads, but how you run your campaign is a proxy how you run a Presidency. If you're dogged, if you work hard, if you consistently outsmart your opponents, that's a powerful qualifier for the toughest job on Earth.

3. Primary Debates Don't Matter, But the Post-Spin Does. Big Time. Regular people don't watch primary debates -- and that makes the post-debate spin all the more important. In 2004, people who watched the first debate thought John Kerry did better by a small margin. Four days later, they said Kerry won by a 3-to-1 margin. The post-spin matters.

This is all the more important in primary debates because of the small initial audience. Chances are you didn't hear about Hillary's last debate performance by watching the debate, but by watching the overwhelmingly negative coverage of it. Likewise, the negative reaction to Rudy's early missteps on abortion in the debates forced him to give a sweeping address on these issues that largely succeeded in stopping the drip-drip-drip of social issue attacks that was dogging his campaign (further evidence of #8 above and getting the bad stuff out early).

2. You Can Buy an Early Lead in IA/NH for About $2 Million. Cool. Mitt Romney's surge to the top of the pack in Iowa and New Hampshire will be studied for years to come. How did a relatively unknown Massachusetts Governor become the hands-down early state favorite? Answer: by dropping ads in these states when no one else would and being on the air uncontested for months. It didn't take much -- perhaps as little as $2 million -- before Romney surged to the lead in these states. And less than 60 days until the voting begins, this early surge has not "corrected" itself.

1. Issues Are Secondary. This is the one that D.C. insiders, the media, and interest group conservatives really don't get. How has Rudy Giuliani stayed atop the GOP field for so long? Because people admire his leadership persona despite his positions on issues. How is Hillary Clinton (who won't apologize for her vote for the war) winning over a rabidly anti-war primary electorate? Because she represents The Clintonian Restoration, and issues are secondary.

When Americans vote, they take the full measure of a candidate. Candidates can overcome bad positions on issues -- even with the most ideological voters -- with a narrative that resonates.

This is the biggest reason why the 2008 election will probably end up as a Subway Series.