The 2008 election offers the most diverse array of presidential candidates in history. But this rainbow campaign will hinge on the most durable reality of American politics: White men matter most.
Every election cycle, a new slice of the electorate - suburban mothers, churchgoing Hispanics, bicycling Norwegians - comes into vogue as reporters and analysts study the polls and try to divine new secrets about who wins and why in American politics.
The truth is that the most important factor shaping the 2008 election will almost certainly be the same one that has been the most important in presidential elections for the past 40 years: the flight of white male voters away from the Democratic Party.
The hostility of this group to Democrats and their perceived values is so pervasive that even many people who make their living in politics scarcely remark on it. But it is the main reason the election 13 months from now is virtually certain to be close - even though on issues from the war to health care, Democrats likely will be competing with more favorable tail winds than they have enjoyed for years.
The "gender gap" has been a fixture in discussions about American politics since the early Reagan years. But it is usually cast as a matter of women being turned off by Republicans. By far the greater part of this gap, however, comes from the high number of white men - who make up about 36 percent of the electorate - who refuse to even consider voting Democratic.
In 2000, exit polling showed white women backed George W. Bush over Al Gore by 3 percentage points, but white men backed him by 27 percentage points. Four years later, with John F. Kerry carrying the Democratic banner, the margin was 26 points.
The Bush years have echoed with what-if questions: What if the votes in Florida had been counted differently in 2000, if Ralph Nader had not run or if Gore had been able to carry his home state? What if Kerry had responded more deftly to the Swift Boat Veterans in 2004?
A more powerful what-if is to imagine that Democratic nominees had succeeded in narrowing the white male gap to even the low 20s instead of the mid-20s. Both Kerry and Gore would have won easily.
In 2008, Democrats are assembling behind a front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, with singular problems among white males. Polls show her support among this group is approaching the record lows scored by Democrats during the peak of Ronald Reagan's popularity in the 1980s. Some recent hypothetical matchups - which are highly fluid at this stage of a contest - showed Clinton winning roughly a third of white males in a race against Republican Rudy Giuliani.
In the past three decades, the only two Democrats to win the presidency, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were politicians who organized campaigns around rhetorical and ideological pitches that were designed to reassure voters skeptical of liberal values - an attitude that dominates among white males. Even these victories, however, took place amid special circumstances, with the Watergate backlash of 1976 and the Ross Perot independent boom undermining Republicans in 1992.
Despite this history, so far none of the Democratic candidates has fashioned a program or message that seems calculated to reverse the flow of white males away from the party. One of the party's politicians who has thought most about the problem chose not to make the race in 2008.
Over the past two generations, said former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, "there was a morphing of the Democratic Party from a sense of a common good or a common commitment to each other as fellow citizens to being an advocate for groups. And I think that Democrats were advocates for every other group except for white males."
The problem with this approach is that it leaves virtually no margin for error. To win national elections, Democrats need to win nearly all of the African-American vote, a substantial majority of Hispanics and at least come close to winning half of white women. (Democrats have not actually commanded a majority of white women since 1964.)
One of the Democrats' top experts on political demography, Mark Gersh, has pondered how this math affects the most fought-over prize of recent elections, the 20 electoral votes in Ohio. "Gore got 90 percent of the black vote; you are not going to do better than that," Gersh said. He adds that Kerry earned 88 percent, as well. "So how are you going to win? I have this theory that the only way he could win the state was by really jumping the numbers up in Democratic performance in blue-collar northeastern Ohio."
"Concern for the common man"
Easy enough to say. But actually achieving this feat in Ohio and elsewhere for Democrats requires reckoning with political attitudes that have had several decades to take root - and are twisted not simply around policies but also deep cultural and economic shifts.
Trying to understand this history is what led to "The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma." The idea for the book began during the 2004 election, when I was traveling the country for CBS News. Many of these men, even three years ago, had lost their patience for the Iraq war. Often they had obvious reservations about George W. Bush. But it was made clear in conversations the contempt they felt for Democrats - and felt in return from Democrats. For these voters, it was an election with no real competition for their votes.
As I later learned, this was precisely the circumstance that some Republican strategists had vividly anticipated a quarter-century earlier.
Early in Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign, his pollster Richard Wirthlin wrote a book-length campaign plan - never previously obtained - detailing a strategy expressly designed to "break up" the Democratic coalition. To "target the populist voter," the campaign would work toward the "development of the aspiring American populist theme of 'anti-bigness - big government, big business, big labor.'" The media messages were to be "simple, direct and optimistic." They were to focus on "blue collar" voters utilizing "principal themes" that "project a realization that these voters are no longer solely motivated by economic concerns but by larger social issues, as well."
It was an idea that informed not simply the 1980 campaign but also the next 25 years of GOP strategy. It was to "position [Reagan] as a doer, a man of action," the "decisive leader capable of making tough decisions." But above all, Reagan was to "solidify a public impression" that he "has concern for the common man and understands the problems facing voters in their daily lives."
It was Wirthlin who first coined the term "gender gap." But once "the press ran with the idea - the question they always asked was, 'Why is Reagan doing so poorly among women?' But that's only one blade of the scissors. The question I was always interested in was, 'Why was Reagan doing so well among men?'" he says. "It's been a mystery to me for 25 years why that wasn't recognized."
From 1980 on, Democrats never won more than 38 of every 100 white men who voted. Soon Republicans seemed to own masculinity itself.