What a way to kick off an election. While I greet the results of the Iowa caucus with mixed emotions – and I’m still not a fan of the current presidential primary system – I have to admit that, this year at least, it’s compelling political theater.
I’m tickled over Sen. Hillary Clinton’s third place Iowa showing, exposing the inescapable vulnerability of her candidacy. Nationally, Clinton’s polling numbers are consistently solid, but her upside is limited because of her negatives, which is what sunk her in Iowa. Clinton is not a charismatic figure, she rarely seems sincere, and within her own party her core of support is capped at around one-third whenever the faithful are polled.
That weakness cost her a win in Iowa because, under party caucus rules, supporters of candidates who fail to meet the first ballot threshold have two choices: throw in with another candidate, or go home. When caucus goers behind Democratic contenders Dodd, Biden, Richardson, and Kucinich were faced with the choice of backing someone else or leaving, they overwhelmingly chose against Clinton. That’s the message that people need to take away from Thursday night.
Sen. Barack Obama not only polled well on the first ballot, but he also picked up support on subsequent ballots, demonstrating his campaign’s depth of strength.
Obama’s win wasn’t the landslide many pundits seem to think, but it was definitive and erased any questions about his ability to organize (a Clinton strong point) and, more importantly, his ability to transcend the issue of race. Both of those elements will become even more critical in larger, less-white states than Iowa and New Hampshire.
Clinton finished a mere percentage point behind John Edwards, so her defeat wasn’t a death blow – but it comes close. Edwards bet everything on Iowa but it’s difficult, based on one state, to measure his performance against the Obama groundswell. The strength of Edwards’ message will be more clearly shown this week during the New Hampshire primary. If Edwards can manage to turn his performance in Iowa into a respectable third place result in New Hampshire, with Obama overtaking Clinton in the Granite State, Hillary’s goose is cooked. It doesn’t mean Edwards will suddenly catch fire and win the nomination, but it will show just how strong anti-Hillary sentiment is among the Democrats.
Before Iowa, conventional wisdom had a strong Edwards helping Clinton by tempering the effect of an Obama win and allowing Clinton to maintain her lead in New Hampshire. After Iowa, I see a stronger than expected Edwards drawing from Hillary’s support, not hurting Obama.
Unthinkable just a few weeks ago, but a three-game winning streak by Obama in conjunction with a steady Edwards will send a clear signal that what the Democrats desire most is change, and that they believe their best hope lies with the junior Senator from Illinois. Obama, not Clinton, is the candidate with the energy and message to coalesce the Democrats.
A Clinton win in New Hampshire is well within reach – she’s leading in the polls going into the weekend – but to do so she’ll need to hold the line among Democrats and pray for the Independent voters to back Republican John McCain. If the Indies catch Obama fever, I don’t see a Comeback Kid redux in Hillary’s future.
The message from the Republicans in the Iowa is similar. My man Ron Paul kept his message alive with a double-digit effort in Iowa, but the outcome of the duel between Governors Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney had the most dire implications.
Ron Paul can continue to advance his cause with a similar showing as he earned in Iowa. I see him finishing a strong fourth in New Hampshire, and with a committed base of support, and plenty of money, Paul will remain faithful to his cause beyond Tuesday. But I don’t see him having a spoiler effect in the primary.
Huckabee’s victory, though dismissed as an aberration stemming from his association with a strong evangelical constituency in the Hawkeye State, was less of a win for Huckabee and more of a slap at candidates valuing style-over substance. Romney’s money bought an organization, advertising, and strategy, but it failed to generate enthusiasm. Huckabee was embraced in Iowa because he came off as genuine – something Romney’s money can’t buy.
Now, a wounded Romney’s hopes rest in New Hampshire, where the voters know him best of all the candidates on the ballot. That’s both a positive and a negative for Romney who shouldn’t have to worry about Huckabee on Tuesday. But he does have his hands full with a resurgent Senator McCain. New Hampshire voters love McCain – as he proved by winning that state during the 2000 presidential primary.
New Hampshire Independents like to see where they will have the most dramatic impact, and their choices will be either Obama or McCain. In talking with voters in New Hampshire, I’m convinced that both will benefit from that tradition.
If McCain can manage to win in New Hampshire again – and some polls are showing that he can – it’s over for Romney, who will see his support erode precipitously in the South and Midwest, to the benefit of Huckabee, McCain, and (surprise, surprise) Fred Thompson.