Democratic Campaign Outlook Monday night's Democratic presidential debate will provide an opportunity for some of the less well-known candidates to reach a mass audience, a chance they wouldn't be able to buy with their own financial resources. But a new Washington Post/ABC poll suggests that it's a two-candidate race among Democrats.
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Democratic Campaign Outlook

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Democratic Campaign Outlook

Democratic Campaign Outlook

Democratic Campaign Outlook

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Monday night's Democratic presidential debate will provide an opportunity for some of the less well-known candidates to reach a mass audience, a chance they wouldn't be able to buy with their own financial resources. But a new Washington Post/ABC poll suggests that it's a two-candidate race among Democrats.

ALEX COHEN, host:

Tonight's YouTube debate will provide an opportunity for some of the less well-known candidates to reach a mass audience. A chance they wouldn't be able to buy with their own financial resources. That's a big factor in keeping some of these candidates in the race especially when polls show they're almost unknown to the public.

NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins us now for more on presidential politics and polls. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING: Hello, Alex.

COHEN: So there is a new poll from the Washington Post and ABC News. It's out today just in time for the debate tonight. What does it have to say?

ELVING: It tells us that Hillary Clinton remains in a commanding position among the Democratic candidates, that Barack Obama has moved into a secure number two position, that John Edwards is fading back into the pack, and that while Bill Richardson is doing well in some states where he is concentrating, he is still only at three percent nationally. So definitely still back in the pack despite his rather aggressive push in recent weeks.

COHEN: Ron, it seems like the presidential race is kind of taking on a bit of a two-candidate bias. It seems like there's Clinton and there's Obama, and forget about everybody else.

ELVING: Every four years we seem to fall into the same pattern in which the media and most everyone else has trouble thinking in terms of more than two candidates in each party. We tend to just look at the frontrunner and the main challenger, and it's hard to get a third or a fourth person in there.

That's one of the reasons that these debates really make a big difference, because they keep the field large, they give people a much wider idea of the diversity of the candidates in every sense, including ideologically. And that makes sense this far out from the first events in January to see a wider field.

COHEN: And Ron, are we seeing the same kind of two-horse race happening on the Republican side as well?

ELVING: I think we will, although it's a little bit less clear who the number two horse is going to be. On the Republican side, all year, Rudy Giuliani has been running ahead, and on average of the major national polls right now he's at about 25 percent. It had been John McCain, who was his main rival in many of these polls, but now it appears to be Fred Thompson, not yet an official candidate but already running about 20 percent. That's on average across the major national polls.

COHEN: And, of course, we're still in the summer of 2007. It's a bit early on. What do these polls tell us? Do they tell us anything beyond name recognition?

ELVING: Name recognition is a huge factor. I think that it's probably the most important thing for Rudy Giuliani that people know who he is and associate him with 9/11 and being mayor of New York. They don't know much else about him but that's been powerful.

Often times, too, name recognition is a negative characteristic in a sense that people have identified something negative with a particular candidate's name, and I think that's the problem for John McCain.

At one point, he was the putative frontrunner, was expected to have all the institutional advantages in 2008. But what has happened is he's been too closely associated with an unpopular war in Iraq, an unpopular policy in Iraq, and he's been too closely associated with the President Bush plan for immigration, which many on the Republican side have seen as being amnesty for illegal immigrants.

COHEN: This YouTube debate tonight, you've got to give them credit for tapping into pop culture. You almost have to wonder if there's going to be a debate at some point in the future where people will dial in at the end "American Idol" style. You know, vote for your favorite candidate - candidate 02, something like that. Do you see that happening any time?

ELVING: Well, to some degree, we're already doing it. Some of the debates we've had up to now, and of course they may be unofficial debates, but joint candidate appearances that went out on cable television were followed by the opportunity for people to phone in or e-mail to that particular cable network with their choice of the winner.

There's a problem with that, of course, from a scientific standpoint. Those are totally unscientific polls. They are totally volunteered by the people who want to respond, and so they can be pushed or manipulated by a particular campaign, getting their people organized to repeatedly call in, repeatedly send e-mails. So from a scientific standpoint, that kind of choose-your-own in the "American Idol" fashion is highly suspect.

COHEN: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Thanks so much, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Alex.

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