Overrated and Underrated Candidates

There is a fascinating new poll out by National Journal about the 2008 presidential field. National Journal asked about 200 Washington insiders (pundits, strategists, consultants, congressional staff, etc.) about which 2008 candidates were the most over- and underrated. The results are as follows:

Who is your party's most overrated candidate?

John Edwards: 42%
Barack Obama: 40%
Hillary Rodham Clinton: 7%
Bill Richardson: 7%
None: 2%
Joseph Biden: 1%

Fred Thompson: 58%
John McCain: 14%
Mitt Romney: 14%
Rudy Giuliani: 11%
Sam Brownback: 1%
Ron Paul: 1%
The results of this poll are quite intriguing. The candidates leading this poll are all running at or near the head of the pack in their respective fields. Does this poll suggest a level of disconnect between the Washington crowd and the average voter? Who's right?

Regarding the Democrats, the inexperience factor that plagues Obama and Edwards is strongly reflected in this poll. But more interesting than that is the significantly lower level of disenchantment expressed about Clinton. More on that later.

As for the Republicans, the undeclared Fred Thompson seems to be the candidate who is greeted with the most skepticism. But a greater point of interest is that all the other top tier candidates received fairly high (and even) levels of dissatisfaction. This reflects the restlessness Republicans have about their choices and points to how conservative voters may be pinning their hopes on Fred Thompson because of it. But if Thompson turns out to be a bust, then where do Republicans go? Would this give Newt Gingrich his opening?

Here's the flip side of the poll:
Who is your party's most underrated candidate?

Bill Richardson: 32%
Joseph Biden: 28%
Christopher Dodd: 22%
John Edwards: 7%
Hillary Rodham Clinton: 6%
Barack Obama: 3%
Dennis Kucinich: 1%
None: 1%

Mike Huckabee: 46%
Mitt Romney: 25%
John McCain: 12%
Rudy Giuliani: 8%
Sam Brownback: 3%
Tommy Thompson: 3%
Duncan Hunter: 1%
Ron Paul: 1%
None: 1%
For people who study politics in depth, these data should not be surprising. I can't help but wonder how many average people even know who Mike Huckabee or Joe Biden is. The media aren't doing voters any favors by focusing on "Clinton vs. Obama" or "John Edwards vs. Ann Coulter" or "Rudy McRomney vs. Fred Thompson." Perhaps because the media like a good storyline, they want to keep covering politics through a binary lens. In our American Idol rivalry culture, it's easy to understand the tit-for-tat between Clinton and Obama. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd don't neatly fit anywhere in this storyline and only serve to complicate things. So the media ignore them.

The most interesting statistics I see here are how Clinton only registered at 6% in the underrated category and 7% in the overrated category. So is she a balanced candidate? She is considerably more experienced than Obama and Edwards, but less so than Biden, Dodd, and Richardson. Does she have the right balance of freshness, charisma, and experience? Is this why she's performing so well in the polls? My sense is that some Washingtonians and even average voters might not particularly like Clinton, but they do acknowledge her strength, even if grudgingly. She might not be belting out home runs at the debates and in her speeches, but she's methodically hitting singles and doubles. To her, it doesn't matter if she wins ugly as long as she wins.

Not many people in this poll thought Obama and Edwards were underrated. The Washington crowd does have the benefit of experience (in terms of following politics intensely year after year), so perhaps they see one or both of these candidates flaming out sometime soon. They could be wrong though. After all, they thought George W. Bush didn't stand a chance against then Vice President Al Gore. Or could this poll really be a leading indicator of things to come? Will the public follow the pundits? After all, John Edwards' numbers have steadily been declining while Obama's have plateaued.

The most underrated Democrats in this poll turned out to be the three with the most experience. They are more cerebral than charismatic and that probably explains why they are failing to gain much traction in the polls. Bill Richardson, for example, would commonly list five-point plans for how he'd tackle certain problems in previous debates. Joe Biden has talked at length about how he wanted to divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions. And Chris Dodd sounds like a policy wonk in general, perhaps because of his lengthy tenure in the Senate. Voters who want to be inspired probably aren't going to respond well to this. Dodd has largely been invisible in the debates while Richardson has been criticized for sounding emotionless. My thinking is that if these debates took place over the radio instead of on television, Biden, Dodd, and Richardson would be doing far better in the polls than they are now.

As for the Republicans, the most interesting thing I noticed was how aside from Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, no other Republican really stood out. (John McCain is an exception because the media may have prematurely written his campaign obituary.) In other words, in a ten-candidate field (actually, now it's nine candidates because Tommy Thompson dropped out of the race), only Rudy McRomney, Fred Thompson, and Mike Huckabee were mentioned. Tancredo, Hunter, Brownback, and Paul were almost invisible, and that seems to be where they are in most polling, although Tancredo probably got a boost from Ames. So right now, they are only role players in the primary race, rather than protagonists. That could change though.

Could Mike Huckabee be the strongest Republican candidate this cycle? I think he very well could be. He has the right geography, an approachable demeanor, the right conservative credentials, sufficient executive experience, and strong debating skills. I believe Mike Huckabee is Mitt Romney's worst nightmare because Romney has planted his flag on what should be Huckabee's turf even though Huckabee can more credibly claim that this turf belongs to him. If Fred Thompson turns out to be a bust, Mitt Romney's support remains a mile wide and an inch deep, and John McCain runs out of money, the Republican race could come down to the conservative Huckabee vs. the moderate Giuliani. If this happens, this is when I expect the social conservative base to stop Giuliani's campaign dead in its tracks. And if Huckabee wins the nomination, I believe he will be exceptionally difficult to defeat because even though he's a conservative (voters are probably turned off from conservatism after Bush, Iraq, and the previous GOP Congress), he does not come across as a fire-breathing partisan. I'm not so sure Clinton can easily defeat him because Huckabee is not a part of the "right wing smear machine" that she commonly rails against. Huckabee truly is an outsider and can neutralize Obama's message of "change."

There are some truly great candidates in this race on both sides. I only lament the fact that they are not able to get their messages out with equal ability. If I were a Democrat, I'd be watching Mike Huckabee carefully. And if I were a Republican, I'd be watching Bill Richardson carefully. Both candidates are perhaps the most difficult to run against and are slowly working their way up the polls beneath the radar while Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Giuliani, Thompson, Romney, and McCain cannibalize themselves.

3 comment(s):

Silence Dogood said...

That was a very interesting poll that slipped past me and I am glad you republished and gave analysis here. I think the reason for Clinton being so strong is the same reason for Bush's 2000 victory from out of the pack and ultimate victory.

In doing a study of which type of movies do well (think genre) a broad and extensive research test was done which I think explains the quandry - a friend hipped me to this - or rather why in a land of 300,000,000 teaming persons we may split the presidency for perhaps a quarter of a centry among 2 friggin' families (the scion of the first proving completely over his head and deleterious to everything he touches). What they came up with was that no particular type of movie ensures success, western, horror, thiller, action, whatever - the categories were even more narrow than this, like types of comedies. Except one! Sequels to previously successful movies. Allah, Hillary and Georgie porgie are born. Isn't it tough to picture just about anyone as president before they become president and after that person has been in for a few years it is almost as hard to picture anyone but him being president. Well, between that and the comfort American feel with the 'sequel' mentality/known quantity (one would think Bush's bumbling would have disabused us of this notion once and for all) I give you Hillary Clinton. I truly think this has a lot to do with it. If she had never been married to bill and still had all the same accomplishments, even minus the failing on health care and nagging scandalous baggage, she would not even be being discussed right now as a potential candidate, much less the front runner - nor would have Gov. Bush sans his father.

Anthony Palmer said...

One of the things that surprised me about the poll was how negative the comments were about John Edwards. It seems like he has absolutely no friends in Washington.

I really think the Democrats should reconsider the so-called second tier candidates. I bet even Chris Dodd would be a more formidable nominee than any of the top three candidates.

Anthony Palmer said...

One other thing:

Pundits are already starting to pile on Fred Thompson. Maybe I'll write about that in the near future. One of the comments in that poll warned that his campaign might be a "stillborn."

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