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Is Rudy the Democrats' worst nightmare?

Mark Shields, in the Washington Post, once called presidential elections the "most personal vote." Party identification or other factors may be decisive in elections for Congress or state offices, but the presidency is unique. Issues are the most important reason someone wins, of course, but personal factors can often tip the balance in close national elections.

Based on his heroic image, his obvious executive ability, his making New York City a livable, governable place and his proven track record as a winner on overwhelmingly Democratic turf, Giuliani would be an extremely dangerous opponent for Democrats. In his 1997 re-election, Rudy ran 38 points ahead of Republican registration. He won nearly half of all Democrats and more than two-thirds of white Democrats. Not even Ronald Reagan was able to do that.

Pro football fans surely have heard of the "West Coast Offense" where coaches seek a matchup that favors their team. For example, they'll send a faster wide receiver against a slower linebacker, or a taller tight end against a shorter defensive back. In four key ways -- in terms of leadership, ethnicity, ideology and geography -- Rudy matches up better against the two leading Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The leadership issue is obvious: does any Democrat have anything to compare with 9/1 1 and "America's Mayor?"

Second, against Obama or Clinton, Rudy would likely reap an "ethnic bonus" from urban Catholics and Jews. Most Italian-Americans, even registered Democrats, will be sorely tempted to cross over to support one of their own. Rudy also polls well with other urban white Catholics, Jews, Asians, Hispanics and moderate-to-liberal "secular" middle-class whites.

Given his crime-fighting image, he clearly will have appeal to suburban voters who feel they were driven out of their old cities by urban chaos. That's a probable gain of 3 million to 4 million votes nationally, and it's hard to imagine too many Bush 2004 voters going for either Clinton or Obama.

Third is that Rudy is much closer to the center (fiscally conservative and tough on bad guys, but also tolerant on social issues) than the Democratic field, and moderate independents also like him. Rudy is the one Republican who can offer both continuity for Republicans (leadership in the war on terror) and change (he's not beholden to the religious right, nor is he associated with the scandal-ridden congressional Republicans and can call for a phased withdrawal from Iraq if necessary) to Democrats and Independents. The danger for Clinton is that she'll get isolated on the left and hold onto only inner-city minorities and white liberals -- much like Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Over the last generation, white voters have often divided by degree of religious intensity, with observant Protestants and Catholics going Republican while Jews and "secular humanists" have voted Democratic. Since there are more believers than nonbelievers in America, Republicans have won most national elections over the past 40 years. Jimmy Carter, an outspoken "born-again" Christian, is the only Democratic presidential nominee since the 1960s to win a majority in the national popular vote.

At his best, Giuliani brings in white Catholics, Jews, Hispanics, Asians, suburban independents, Easterners and older women. With the possible exception of McCain, no other Republican can do that.

Fourth, and most importantly, Rudy is stronger in the Electoral College than anyone else. While he may be a little bit weaker in the South than a standard conservative like Tennessee's Fred Thompson, most Southern states are already out of reach for Democrats and Rudy would be well-positioned to make major gains outside the South.

One huge reason why George W. Bush lost California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Maryland and Connecticut is the defection of previously Republican suburban voters. Rudy's popularity in big metropolitan areas will erode the Democratic edge in the cities, win the suburbs and carry most states by virtue of normally Republican rural votes. Rudy would put 40 states in play, including most of the Northeast (even New York) and the Midwest, plus the West Coast, and likely win 35 of them. Incidentally, Dukakis lost 40 states in 1988. Democrats should be terrified about facing this guy because he has the best potential to cut into their urban base.

Clinton's negative ratings have averaged almost 50 percent for more than a decade now, while Giuliani's have been 2-to-1 positive for the last six years. It's rare for candidates with such high approval ratings to lose. After loudly shouting that Bill Clinton's personal life had nothing to do with his performance as president, can Democrats really attack Rudy for being divorced twice and an admitted adulterer?

Does any Democrat match up against Giuliani? A Southerner like Al Gore or John Edwards would have a shot at picking up Florida and either Tennessee or North Carolina. And no Democrat has ever won the presidency without winning at least 35 electoral votes in the South.

But Gore isn't running yet and Edwards has been stuck in third place in the Democratic polls. Otherwise, I'd bet on a Northeastern Italian Catholic former prosecutor with staunch "Middle America" appeal against a feminist from an affluent East Coast suburb or even a very talented black guy from the South Side of Chicago.

Generally speaking, moderate Republicans have little trouble against liberal Democrats. See McKinley vs. Bryan, Eisenhower vs. Stevenson, Nixon vs. McGovern or the first George Bush vs. Dukakis. Since World War II, Republicans have gotten in trouble when they are seen as too socially reactionary, as Barry Goldwater was perceived to be in 1964, but Giuliani won't have that problem.

But what if social conservatives rebel against a Giuliani nomination and run a pro-life candidate like Pat Buchanan or Tom Tancredo? That would be very unlikely if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, because the vast majority of conservatives wouldn't want to risk another Clinton presidency. So, in effect, Rudy needs Hillary! But if there was a reasonably well-financed conservative third party running, things would be interesting, to say the least.

Some Democrats say that Rudy would be the most formidable Republican since Reagan, but the better comparison might be to Bobby Kennedy. Although Clinton now has RFK's old Senate seat, there are numerous parallels between Rudy and Bobby: they were both in-your-face prosecutors, sharp debaters, had intensely high energy levels, were street-smart and had a "ruthless" will to win. Rudy is Bobby if he had gotten older and more conservative. Interestingly enough, RFK was Giuliani's first political hero. He's also a younger, fresher version of John McCain.

As a Democrat, I must admit to having mixed feelings about Giuliani. In terms of philosophy, I'd like to see the Republicans moderate their positions by moving closer to us. But I also would like to see them nominate extremists who would be easier to defeat.

What about the argument that Clinton could inspire a massive turnout from single women eager to shatter the "glass ceiling" or that Obama could double the black turnout? Either is possible, but neither is likely. Women are not a bloc vote like blacks, Jews or Mormons. Older women, especially married women in the South and Midwest, lean to the right. Tragically, no black candidate in a statewide or national election has ever pulled off the neat trick of both mobilizing a huge black vote while not alienating moderate whites. John F. Kennedy succeeded at this in 1960 -- he mobilized his base of urban Catholics and Jews and held onto enough Protestant Democrats to win narrowly -- but New York Gov. Al Smith couldn't in 1928.

One key fact about pols is that they almost always repeat their previous successful strategies. Look at Rudy's track record: he's proven that he could beat black (David Dinkins) and female (Ruth Messinger) candidates without coming across as macho or racist, a key skill for any white male candidate facing a minority or female opponent. Granted, Clinton and Obama will be much tougher opponents, but the pattern is clear.

Is there any way Giuliani could lose a two-way race? Of course. I can think of at least three ways he could blow it. First, he's human like every other candidate and could make some unforced errors. Second, he could lose that famous temper of his in public. Third, he could let his foreign policy be hijacked by the neo-conservatives; the voters don't want another four years of Bush's foreign policy.

But if he doesn't make any major mistakes, in a two-way race he'd be really tough to beat. However, in a three- or four-way race, all bets are off. We'll see if conservative Republican primary voters can stomach his social liberalism. If enough of them can, he'll be hard to stop in November.

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