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AEI Elections Watch

September 18, 2008

Washington DC – Only a day before early voting begins in Virginia, with a host of other states following next week, a group of Republican-leaning analysts gathered Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) — a conservative think tank in Washington DC — to assess the state of the 2008 Presidential Campaign. AEI Fellows Michael Barone, Karlyn Bowman, Norman J. Ornstein and John Fortier discussed issues ranging from the selection of Sarah Palin as the GOP candidate for Vice-President, to the ongoing financial crisis.

“Sarah Palin’s choice undoubtedly electrified the Republican base,” said Norman J. Ornstein, “I think she is the prettiest candidate for Vice-President since John Edwards,” he joked. Although everybody agreed that the selection of the Alaska Governor as his running mate helped McCain’s resurgence in the polls – the Republicans enjoyed a much more significant ‘convention bounce’ than the Democrats — the panelists acknowledged that the Palin effect is already fading. “Now the race looks very much like it did before the conventions,” Senior Fellow Karlyn Bowman commented. “Palin has been a great phenomenon but the polls have already shifted back,” echoed John Fortier, “we know in general that people don’t vote for the Vice-Presidential candidates and the receding of the polls indicate that the Palin effect might be dying down already.”

Undoubtedly the story of the week is the financial crisis, the bankruptcy of investment bank Lehman Brothers and the government rescue of insurance giant A.I.G. and of mortgage lenders Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. “If the Campaign stays focused on the economy then Obama has a lot of traction,” Mr. Ornstein noted. Economic distress generally moves voters towards the Democratic Party, added Michael Barone. However, he also pointed out, a look at state polls seem to suggest a different reality: “Obama is doing well in economically vibrant places such as Colorado and Virginia, which were not on the Democratic map four years ago. And yet, in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, among the hardest hit by the crisis, the race looks like a dead-heat,” Mr. Barone said.

Despite the depth of the turmoil on Wall Street, the speakers at AEI agreed that it is too early in the campaign to state with certainty whether the financial crisis will remain the most pressing issue on the mind of the voters: “We will have many more surprises ahead that will suddenly shift what’s in front of the voters’ radar screen,” Mr. Ornstein said, “even if only temporarily.”

As far as the electoral map is concerned, panelists’ view on what should be expected diverged. While Mr. Barone predicted a surprising and unprecedented outcome, with states such as West Virginia potentially within reach of the Democrats, “This is a time of open field politics, when voters are moving around, candidates are moving around and many unexpected things happen,” he said. John Fortier argued that, in the end, the map won’t look too different from what it has been in the last few elections cycles. “I see history reasserting itself, especially if the results are close,” he said.

Norman J. Ornstein had a different explanation for the apparently tight race, one that other Conservative pundits have been making recently: “I see many similarities with the campaign of 1980 between President Carter and Ronald Reagan,” Mr. Ornstein said asserting that the desire for change is strong and it is in the direction of Obama, but that voters are still waiting to learn more about him. According to this perspective, support for Obama could be underrepresented in the polls conducted thus far. Mr. Ornstein believes that the reactions to the first of the three Presidential debates, hosted next Friday at the University of Mississippi, should give us a better grasp of what’s to follow.

Although there is still over a month before Election Day, early and absentee voting could impact the results in a way that is hard to predict. “Both campaigns are already targeting those voters whom they want to get to the polls early,” Mr. Fortier said recalling how he has been receiving e-mails from the McCain campaign inviting him to cast his early ballot in Virginia. In truth, most early voters wait until the last two weeks before Election Day. However, the AEI Fellows warned that it is important to remember, when making predictions, that there are Americans who will have voted even before any of the debates scheduled takes place.

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