What a way to begin the fall! Perennial college-football power University of Michigan was ranked No. 5 in the preseason polls. It paid little Appalachian State University of Boone, N.C., about $400,000 to have its football team visit Ann Arbor to serve as a season-opening tune-up for the Wolverines. In a stunning upset, Appalachian State won 34-32-- kicking a field goal with 26 sec. left, then blocking a Michigan field-goal attempt on the game's last play.
Lesson: the improbable sometimes happens. And what's true in sports is true in politics. There hasn't been a major upset in a presidential-nomination race since Jimmy Carter's victory in 1976. We're due. And the 2008 presidential campaign is an especially good candidate to provide a surprise. Why?
1. It's an open-seat election. For the first time since 1952, there will be no incumbent President or Vice President on the ballot. As we know from state and local elections, nonincumbent races are more volatile and less predictable than those with incumbents, which tend to be reasonably predictable referendums on the party in power. But in 2008 there won't be an incumbent, and there won't even be someone who resembles an incumbent: none of the leading Republicans have worked in or been particularly close to the Bush Administration. Indeed, the three leading Republicans and two leading Democrats have never run for national office before. Much more depends in such circumstances on unpredictable factors like candidates' errors, campaign dynamics and external events than in a traditional incumbent contest.
2. It's a wartime election. Wars are volatile. Eight months ago, we were losing in Iraq. Now it's not so clear. Where will Iraq stand four months from now, at the time of the Iowa caucuses--or 14 months from now, in November 2008? As wars are unpredictable, so are the politics of war. The fact that we were a nation at war helped the Republicans in 2002 and 2004. It hurt them badly in 2006. What about 2008? George W. Bush recently compared Iraq to Vietnam. Well ... is this 1968, when the party in power got punished, or 1972, when a dovish challenger got clobbered?
3. The primary schedule will be newly front-loaded and compressed. Will that make Iowa and New Hampshire more or less important? No one is certain. I suspect that the slingshot effect out of Iowa and New Hampshire could be greater than ever. In fact, in recent years Iowa has become an increasingly good predictor of the nominee: Bob Dole and Bush won Iowa in 1996 and 2000, respectively, and went on to win the GOP nomination; Al Gore and John Kerry won Iowa in 2000 and 2004 and prevailed on the Democratic side. But in a multicandidate field in Iowa, which it looks as if we'll have for both parties, a few thousand votes--a few hundred votes--could well mean the difference between first place and second and third or, for that matter, third and fifth. And such a small difference could be utterly decisive for who survives and who gets knocked out, who has momentum and who falters.
4. The Democratic front runners are a woman and an African American--the first members of either group to have a good chance to win the presidency. Do the polls accurately reflect hidden support for--or hostility toward--such trailblazer candidates? And the woman in question happens to have as her husband a former President of the U.S. Will the prospect of having Bill Clinton back in the White House help or hurt Hillary Clinton when voters cast their ballots?
5. The leading Republican contenders are a Mormon from Massachusetts, a pro-choice New Yorker and a late-starting TV actor. Some Protestant churches teach that Mormonism is a cult. No pro-choice candidate has been able to compete seriously for the GOP nomination since 1980. No one has gone straight from the studio to the presidency (Ronald Reagan had long ago given up his acting career and had served two terms as Governor of California). This is a very unusual bunch of Republican front runners.
And what about a real Appalachian State--style upset? New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is in double digits in current polling in Iowa, within hailing distance of the three Democratic front runners. What if the leading candidates whack away at one another in TV ads and the personable Richardson sneaks into first or second? On the Republican side, John McCain is having something of a rally. If the situation in Iraq continues to improve and the other Republicans slip and slide, couldn't the old warrior pull off an upset? And what happens to a front runner once he or she stumbles? The week after its defeat by Appalachian State, Michigan was still favored by a touchdown over Oregon. Michigan lost 39-7.
Every presidential election, it's been said, breaks one political rule. This one may break them all.