Long before Mike Huckabee stunned Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses and Hillary Clinton made a dramatic comeback to beat Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primaries, Charlie Cook predicted that the 2008 national elections would be the wackiest in recent memory.
“This is the weirdest political environment that I’ve ever seen,” he said at a Dec. 14 lecture at the Lincoln Center’s Lowenstein Center 12th-floor lounge. “What we all do is we study the past, looking for patterns and trends and things, and it’s usually very helpful. This year I think it’s better to go with that slogan from Alcoholics Anonymous, ‘Take it one day at a time.’”
Cook, a non-partisan political analyst who has been forecasting congressional and presidential elections in his “Cook Political Report” for 23 years, was introduced by Costas Panagopoulos, Ph.D., director of Fordham’s Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy. Panagopoulos noted in his introduction that when he worked with Cook for NBC News during the 2006 national election, it was the first network to call the switch of power in the House of Representatives from Republican to Democrat.
“He’s widely regarded as one of the nation’s best non-partisan trackers of election outcomes,” Panagopoulos said. “It’s remarkable to me just how much knowledge and information he has about 435 congressional districts in 50 states, and on the national level.”
But even that level of knowledge has left Cook scratching his head, as the race for the president has been particularly fluid. Cook hedged from making firm predictions on who would win either major party’s nomination, noting that he’d once said he would win the Tour de France before Rudy Guiliani won a Republican presidential nomination. Guiliani’s performance on 9/11 formed a sort of cocoon around him, but ultimately Cook said he suspects Mitt Romney will win that party’s nomination.
The Democratic nomination is still too close to pick though. Democratic voters, he said, have been so buoyed by their retaking of Congress in 2006, they’re looking to make history, even if it means considering a candidate only four years removed from a state legislature.
“Obama’s rise reminds me of a second wife,” Cook said. “It’s the triumph of hope over experience.”
What makes the current contest so entertaining for political watchers is that it provides scenarios where the exceptionally close finish between Clinton and Obama in the Iowa presidential caucuses on Jan. 3 lured independent voters in New Hampshire—who can vote in any primary—to the Democratic primary. Conventional wisdom said that would benefit Mitt Romney in the Republican primary, but instead John McCain triumphed. In both cases, there’s a very good chance that the neither party’s presidential candidate will be decided until the “Super Tuesday” primary on Feb. 5.
When it comes to Congressional elections, Cook said it’s safe to assume that Democrats will pick up four seats in the Senate and perhaps and equal number in the House. He said Jim McCrery, a veteran Republican congressman from Louisiana, is a perfect example of how Republicans in Congress are in trouble.
“He’s the Republican next in line to become the chairman of the House ways and means committee, and he’s announced he’s not running for re-election. Here you are, next in line; all you need is 16 seats to switch over and you’ll be chairman of the ways and means committee,” Cook said. “You’re in your mid-50s, and you retire from Congress in good health? Because he saw that there was just minimal chance, or no chance, of the House turning over soon. What a weird, weird, weird business we’ve all decided to study.”