If you look past the issues, there are a few solid heuristics for reaching the White House which have held since WWII.
The American South tends to vote as a block and vote Republican. This is devastating to any Democratic candidate, so to counteract this effect, a successful Democratic candidate needs to be from the South.
For Republicans, the biggest challenge is carrying one of the big three states. If they can do that, then success is much more likely (see Reagan ’80), especially if the Democratic candidate is not from the South (see Reagan ’84). New York is so firmly Democratic that it’s not even worth trying to take that state. So the best bet for the Republican party is to put forth the governor from either Texas or California.
Other interesting trends: It is difficult to be elected to the White House from the Senate, and even more so from the Vice Presidency. Moving from the Governor’s Mansion to the White House is more likely. Speculation on this is that nobody really remembers what governors do, but the Senate votes frequently and publicly on important matters.
Republican candidates are more likely to be elected during American involvement in a war, and it is almost unthinkable for them not to be re-elected if they are up for election during an American war.
The only real exception to these heuristics was JFK—and he didn’t win the popular vote, he won the electoral vote. Plus, there is some evidence that the Mob helped him to take Chicago and therefore Illinois, which was enough just enough to best Nixon.
This election would be remarkable even if there wasn’t a female or a minority front-runner. None of the front-runners from either camp fit with the established patterns for success. Obama and Clinton are both senators and neither is from the South. Arnold isn’t eligible to run and Rick Perry seems content to remain at the helm in Texas.
If Hilary was really as smart as she pretends to be, she would ignore New York (since it’s going to vote Democratic anyway) and really play up the fact that she lived in the South for so long. Unfortunately her desire to be seen as the most erudite candidate makes her believe that she has to shed her southernness.
Forget that Obama is a minority. He’s a Northern senator with more time spent living overseas than in the American South. In any normal election year, he wouldn’t have a prayer. He needs to find a way to reach the voters that feel like they haven’t had a candidate to vote for in the past, without alienating those who vote regularly. I have no idea how to do that, and apparently neither does he.
Mitt Romney was a governor, so he shouldn’t be penalized the way senatorial candidates are. But he’s not from Texas or California. So even if he carries the firmly Democratic Massachusetts, it’s not enough electoral votes for him to win.
Rudy Giuliani is a Republican from New York. He’s not a senator, which should favor him, but he’s not been a governor either. Usually candidates carry their home state, but that seems unlikely for New York, especially if he ends up in a race against Clinton. Also, he’s not exactly the bastion of morality that would allow the central American states to vote Republican easily. He’s a very unusual candidate and I think he’s smart in focusing all his efforts on Florida, as it should be a good test-case for him. If he can carry a big state like Florida, then maybe he’s got a shot in an unusual election year like 2008. If he can’t, I think he’s smart enough to see the writing on the wall.
John McCain is a senator, but his competition is likely to be as well, so that probably cancels out this year. He’s smart in that he’s really playing up the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of American soldiers actively deployed in harm’s way overseas. This is smart for a couple of reasons. Obviously he’s working the Republican-during-a-period-of-War angle, which should help him.
Ironically, the worst thing for the Democrats would be American success in Iraq. They’ve been attacking Bush so incessantly about the war that they are locked into that position. If things stay as calm in Iraq as they are now (or even improve), the Democrats won’t be able to attack McCain on that issue—at least not without seeming like they don’t want the American military to be successful. If things deteriorate, then McCain is both a vet and PoW, just the kind of person that Americans look to to lead during a period of war; that is, unless Americans have already given up on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Anyhow, submitted for your approval: a top-down view of American politics on a larger time-scale. Hope this doesn’t depress anyone, though I can’t see why it should. To me it seems that voting is even more important this year since no one fits the established patterns.