If you have any doubts as to whether this presidential campaign season has lasted too long and soured voters on the whole political process, look at the favorable/unfavorable poll ratings of the candidates. Premier pollster Scott Rasmussen's latest polling of likely voters nationally shows that most Democrats and Republicans have higher negative than positive poll numbers. The more we see them, the less we want them as our leader.
To borrow from existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, 2008 could turn out to be the "Hell is Other People" election. The safest bet in politics is to wager that the next president is someone almost half of Americans don't like.
On Wednesday, Rasmussen reported that among Democrats, Hillary Clinton scored 45 favorable/54 unfavorable, Barack Obama's numbers were at 52/45, John Edwards was 48/44, Joe Biden 38/37, with all other Democrats disliked more than they were liked by as much as 23 points.
Republican hopeful John McCain showed the highest favorable rating of all the candidates of any party 55 favorable/35 unfavorable. Fred Thompson scored 43/34. Mike Huckabee was tied at 42/42, while the rest of the Republicans were rated more negative than positive. Giuliani scored 44/49 and Mitt Romney was 44/45. If the numbers don't change, GOP primary voters will have to ask themselves: Do we want to vote for a candidate whom most American voters don't like?
"If you're a casual observer, the things you'll remember the most are the people you don't like," Rasmussen observed. With a hyper-driven news cycle and limitless stories on candidates' gaffes and baggage, what's to like?
This too-long primary has driven Democrats further to the left and Republicans further to the right. Rasmussen noted that Giuliani had a lower unfavorable rating in the beginning of 2007, back when voters looked at him as The Mayor of 9/11. But as Giuliani moved to the right to woo GOP primary voters, his negative numbers have grown.
There was a time when many voters boasted that they voted for the candidate, not the party. But as the nation's divide has widened, University of Virginia political expert Larry Sabato noted, many Democrats and Republicans will rank unfavorably "every single candidate of the other party." That means that generic candidate X starts off with an unfavorable number of, say, 30 percent, before opening his mouth.
Candidates like Clinton and Giuliani are especially talented at turning off voters from the other party. Note they've been their parties' frontrunners.
On the other hand, Sabato observed, McCain and Obama are exceptions, as they draw interest from voters outside their party.
These polls matter, because they offer primary voters a choice: They can pick a nominee who plays to their party's base, or they look to the rare candidates who just might draw independent votes in November 2008 and achieve a big victory that signals a mandate.
It's not just a matter of winning, but a question of what kind of tone will emanate from Washington in 2009. Wednesday, Clinton's negative rating was 54 percent; on Dec. 20 it was 50 percent. Her unfavorable numbers may fluctuate, but they will not go away.
"She has a good chance of winning," Rasmussen said of Clinton, "but she has very little chance of winning a serious majority."
Without a serious majority, the next president whoever he or she may be will walk into the White House hobbled. If it's a 51-49 vote, almost as many people who elected the next president will have a stake in undermining the new commander in chief's success.