U.S. 2008 Presidential Election Campaigns off to an Early Start

By Michelle Austein
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - The 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign season is off to an extraordinarily early start, according to the head of a leading public opinion polling organization.

Although the election is not until November 4, 2008, many of the expected contenders already have announced their interest in running for the highest office in the United States, said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. Those who have not publicly discussed their intentions likely will have to do so soon to be competitive, he said during a digital video press conference hosted by the State Department Foreign Press Center in New York January 18.

Despite the fact that Election Day is nearly two years away, local forums and debates with presidential candidates will begin as early as February.

Two early events with candidates that likely will receive attention are New Hampshire's April 4 and April 5 debates and South Carolina's April 26 and May 15 debates. In American politics, public debates are commonly held and allow candidates to present their views in response to questions from the media or members of the audience.

These events are notable because New Hampshire and South Carolina are among the first states to hold their primary elections - that is, state-level elections in which voters choose a candidate from one political party to run against candidates from other political parties in a later general election. The 2008 primaries begin in January 2008, as do the caucuses. In this context, a caucus is a meeting of local members of a political party to nominate candidates.

Additionally, advocacy groups have begun their television advertising campaigns for candidates they support.

Newport cited several reasons for the early start. One is that it is the first presidential election since 1952 in which no incumbent president or vice president will be a party's nominee for president. This provides a large opportunity for candidates of both parties, as it is "truly open on both sides of the spectrum," he said.

Voters also have an increased interest in this race, which is due in part to their intense feelings on current U.S. foreign policy, Newport said. It is common in races where foreign policy issues are among Americans' chief concerns that voters have an increased interest in the presidential campaign, he said. (See related article.)

The war in Iraq was a predominant issue in the 2006 midterm elections, and Newport said it appears that it will continue to be the dominant issue during the next year. "There is no other issue that compares to it," Newport said. He acknowledged, however, that this could change over the next 18 months.

Among Republicans who are considering becoming presidential candidates are former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani; Arizona Senator John McCain; former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney; former Wisconsin Governor and former Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson; and former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore. All have formed exploratory committees. On the Democrats' side, Illinois Senator Barack Obama also has formed such a committee.

Establishing an exploratory committee is often one of the first steps taken by those intending to run for president, though it is not required. Candidates use these committees to gather information that will help them decide if they want formally to become a presidential candidate. These committees also can raise funds for a potential candidate.

Some politicians already have announced their candidacy for president, and others are expected to follow shortly. Media reports state that Kansas Senator Sam Brownback will announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on January 20. Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd and former vice presidential candidate John Edwards are among those who officially have announced their candidacy for the Democratic nomination.

One potential Democratic candidate who has not made any official announcement of her intentions nor formed any committee yet is former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who now serves as a senator from New York. Many political experts expect her to seek the presidency, Newport said.

Others may join the race as well, Newport said, adding there is also the possibility of a candidate from a political party other than the Republican and Democratic parties.

While Gallup and other public opinion polling organizations routinely are conducting polls measuring Americans' preference for certain candidates, it is too early to determine who the front-runners will be, Newport said. For example, in February 1991, then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton polled in 11th place among potential Democratic candidates, favored by only 2 percent of those questioned. In November 1992, he won the presidential election.

For more information, see Democracy Dialogues: Free and Fair Elections.