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The Field Is Set

By Reid Wilson

Note: For the purposes of this column, we will assume that former Senator Fred Thompson is, for all intents and purposes, in the race for president.

The field of 18 candidates - eight Democrats and ten Republicans - can only shrink, for several reasons.

First, next year's presidential election looks to have genuinely captured the attention of the American public. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that fully 70% of Americans say they are following the race at least somewhat closely, 20 points higher than at the equivalent time in 2003. Among those respondents, 83% of Democrats say they are satisfied with candidates already in the race. An AP-Ipsos poll out last week showed that just 13% of Democrats and 25% of Republicans would not choose a candidate from the current crop of potential presidents.

That such a small percentage of voters would not choose a named candidate does not, in itself, lead to the conclusion that support for those named candidates is firm. But it does imply that a new entrant would begin with little or no room to grow beyond the frontrunners. To say nothing of the trouble catching up with leading candidates in fundraising or organization-building, a new candidate may simply not find voters willing to consider their candidacies.

Second, when potential future candidates are discussed, none of the major names mentioned have pressing cause to jump into the race.

Former Vice President Al Gore has a platform to discuss an issue on which he apparently feels very passionately. His cause, stopping global warming, has taken off as an issue since he began his full-time advocacy. By stepping into the race, Gore would be faced with questions about myriad other issues, harming his ability to speak as freely as he has on global warming. It is not clear that a run for the presidency would enhance his ability to be effective on the issue he cares most about. In fact, a bid would likely harm his chances of affecting real change on a global level.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, while seemingly the most likely to announce a candidacy in mid-October, is waiting too long to make his entrance. Further, it seems Gingrich remains more interested in the Republican revolution he helped begin in the late 1970s through his retirement from Congress in 1998. And he realizes the challenge a Republican White House nominee faces in 2008: "If we're still in the Bush era next year, we lose," he told reporters today. After years of Republican congressional control and six years of the Bush Administration, "having government not work is a liability," he said. Gingrich routinely criticizes the administration and others he sees as opposed to the brand of Republicanism he helped found, and he seems more likely to remain an advocate for change within his party than a candidate for President. Finally, he can read poll numbers, and with the rise of Thompson, his numbers have dropped. He has said he will wait to see if Thompson's candidacy takes off. If it does, Gingrich is likely to sit this year out.

Finally, Senator Chuck Hagel is flirting with a bid for the White House. But his "major announcement" a few months back, where he announced he would make a later announcement, has sent those who would back his candidacy looking for another contender to support. Plus, Hagel seems genuinely interested at the prospect of serving in some capacity with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who would run as an independent. Hagel has a place in the national dialogue: A Republican opposed to the war in Iraq. That place is likely not in a Republican primary, but his position, plus his foreign policy experience, would make him an excellent addition to an independent ticket headed by Bloomberg.

The parties' fields are set thanks both to a national electorate largely satisfied with its choices and to the lack of necessity for the three most likely entrants to jump into the race. Come the first primaries, the fields will look different, but simply because those who couldn't keep up with the monetary pace will be forced to bow out, not because of any new blood coming in.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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