Charlie Cook says this has been one of the most shocking campaign seasons he has ever covered as an independent political analyst. Cook spoke to a record crowd of 4,315 farmers at the opening session of the 2008 Commodity Classic held in Nashville.
"There were about four or five days early in the year where I thought, 'I don't have a clue what's going on," says the veteran Cook, speaking to the audience via satellite. "There have been so many shocks in this election campaign season. Sen. John McCain was a dead man last July, but came back to life and next Tuesday will lock in the number of delegates needed for the nomination. And all those forces that made Sen. Hillary Clinton look like a certain lock for the Democrats turned out to be flat wrong. We've never seen a year like this."
Widely regarded as a leading authority on U.S. politics, Cook believes the presidential election will be extremely tight – within two to three percentage points. "It's going to be very, very close," he says.
But Republicans will have an uphill battle to keep the White House. "We're not starting on a level playing field," Cook says. "It's hard for any party to win the White House three terms in a row." In any two-term presidency, voters generally begin wishing for a change by the end of the last term, and that factor is compounded this year by President Bush's poor approval ratings. In addition, the war in Iraq, a skittish economy and a demoralized Republican party all work against McCain's chances for election.
Assuming Sen. Barack Obama beats Clinton for the Democratic nomination, the country will see two very different candidates in the general election. Obama, 46, has energized younger groups of voters but has a very thin record of experience on national or international politics. McCain, 71, is the maverick, reaching out to moderate and independent voters. But he still must make amends with conservatives and evangelicals to have any chance of winning.
Obama, says Cook, "is obviously bright and capable, but hasn't been around national politics as much as what we usually see. Still, he's captured something that I've never seen before."