Be a better presidential bettor

Sun Journal

By the book: In the horse race for the White House, history can take the place of equine bloodlines. Today's long view favors long shots.

January 28, 1999|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The presidential candidates are moving toward the starting gate, announcing that they are going to announce, or are creating "exploratory" committees, or setting money-raising goals and so forth.

Before the horse race actually begins, it would be a good idea to look at the early odds and signs of credibility.

There are several ways to do this. One is to read the current quotations from the London betting firm, William Hill Organization Ltd. It is illegal to bet on election outcomes in the United States, but not in England. Hill has been taking bets for several weeks.

Here is how the bookie assessed the chances of some leading candidates late last week:

Vice President Al Gore is the front-runner at even money. Publisher Steve Forbes is 8-1. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander is 10-1. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt is 10-1. Former California Gov. Pete Wilson is 16-1. Former Vice President Dan Quayle is is 20-1. Former vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp is 25-1. Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey is 50-1. Political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan is 50-1.

The candidates listed above share a characteristic that is important in a race for president: They ran for president or vice president four or more years earlier.

There have been 25 presidential elections in this century. In only seven those was the winning candidate running in his first national campaign. They were Bill Clinton in 1992, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, Herbert H. Hoover in 1928, Sen. Warren G. Harding in 1920, Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and William Howard Taft in 1908. And Eisenhower had been very publicly urged to run as a Democrat and as a Republican in 1948, but declined.

Of the 25 losing major-party presidential nominees, only eight were first-time candidates. And one of those, Gerald R. Ford in 1976, was the incumbent president.

The third favorite candidate in the Hill Organization line is Elizabeth Dole. She's at 5-1. The historical odds against her are much worse than that. Not just because she is a woman -- the odds against her on that basis are incalculable, because there has never been a female president, or female nominee of a major party, or a female candidate with a strong chance of winning.

(Geraldine Ferraro was nominated by the Democrats for vice president in 1984. But she lost, and bombed last year when she ran for the U.S. Senate nomination in New York. Ferraro is not known to even be thinking about running for president next year.)

The historical odds against Mrs. Dole would be large even if she were a man, because she has never been elected to high office.

Of the 50 Democratic and Republican presidential nominees in the 20th century, all but four had experience in elected office. The exceptions were William Howard Taft in 1908 (but not 1912, when he sought re-election, of course), Herbert H. Hoover in 1928, Wendell Willkie in 1940, and Eisenhower in 1952 (but not in 1956).

Taft, Hoover and Eisenhower, like Mrs. Dole, had had long experience in appointed government jobs at the upper levels.

The Hill Organization has posted odds on another potential woman president, Hillary Rodham Clinton -- 25-1 as of last week. That is the same handicapping Hill came up with for Mrs. Clinton in December. Mrs. Dole came to 5-1 from 40-1 in a month -- a month in which she resigned her presidency of the Red Cross. So she may have the early momentum.

Other non-office holders Hill gave a chance of winning the race are Forbes and Buchanan. Forbes' odds improved from 9-1 in December to 8-1. Buchanan is at 50-1, which is serious slippage; he was 33-1 in December.

Hill lists odds on several potential candidates who hold or have held major elective offices. Those not mentioned above in the former presidential or vice presidential candidate category are Texas Gov. George W. Bush (who is second-favorite behind Gore, at 9-4, down from 7-4 in December, perhaps because he has sounded dubious about running recently), Arizona Sen. John McCain (16-1, compared with 66-1 in December), Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi (16-1, slipping from 12-1), former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley (20-1, compared with 66-1), Ohio Rep. John R. Kasich (25-1, compared with 66-1), Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (33-1, down from 25-1), New Hampshire Sen. Robert C. Smith (40-1, holding steady), Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (40-1, as before), Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota (50-1, down from 33-1), and a handful of others with prohibitive odds.

Dropped from the latest Hill list is South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. He was 33-1 in December. His turning age 97 may have hurt his chances.

There are other patterns from history that suggest what kind of candidate has the odds in his favor in a presidential race. One important one is the nature of the office held before running. Clinton was a governor. So was Ronald Reagan. So was Carter. So, in five of the last six elections the winning presidential candidate had a governorship in his curriculum vitae.

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