Sunday, December 23, 2007

Approaching Iowa: A Tale of Alternative Universes

The results of the Iowa caucuses, coming on January 3, will likely tell different stories in the presidential nominating races of the Republican and Democratic parties.

That shouldn't be surprising. For months now, the campaigns for the two parties' nominations have unfolded like tales from parallel universes. The datelines and the timelines are the same, but the plotlines are altogether different.

Democratic voters are generally happy with their field of presidential contenders.

The Republicans have been restive. For months, people hankered for former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson to enter the race, for example. But once he did--"belatedly" according to the current bizarre standards, he was met by a collective yawn.

The respective parties' debates have found Democratic and Republican candidates spending time talking about different topics, almost as though they were speaking to two different countries. Democrats talk more about health care and Republicans focus more on illegal immigration.

But it's the difference in politics in the two parties that most interests me right now. The stakes associated with the Iowa caucuses and then, the New Hampshire primary, which happens on January 8, are very different for Democrats and Republicans.

At present, it appears that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee will win the Iowa caucuses in the Republican Party. That will afford the affable former clergyman a bit of a bounce in his bid for his party's nomination.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that Huckabee will automatically become the presumptive Republican nominee if he wins in Iowa. Such cautions are especially appropriate in the Republican universe.

In 1980, for example, George H.W. Bush narrowly won in Iowa, taking 32% of the vote. The elder Bush pronounced that he had Big Mo--momentum--in his corner as he headed to New Hampshire. Because the Bush family had strong New England roots, many presumed it would be a likely spot for a Bush to win, thrusting him toward the GOP presidential nomination. But it didn't happen. Big Mo shifted his allegiance and Ronald Reagan was nominated for the presidency.

There's another reason an Iowa win might not give Huckabee a big boost from Big Mo. Iowa's Republican caucus-goers are both more conservative and more evangelical than voters in New Hampshire's primary. The composition of Iowa's Republican caucus-goers is advantageous to Huckabee. The composition of New Hampshire's likely primary-voters is not. Not only New Hampshire' Republican voters more moderate and dramatically less evangelical, the state also allows independents to cast votes in the parties' primaries.

While Huckabee can certainly capitalize on an Iowa win, it's likely that such a victory will say less about enthusiasm for him, at least for the moment, than about a decided lack of enthusiasm for the presumptive frontrunners going into Iowa, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.

A Huckabee win in Iowa then, will be a signal that the race for the GOP nomination is far from over. For Republicans, that will heighten New Hampshire's importance.

For some time, it's been clear that two members of the Republican field have built-in advantages for the New Hampshire primary race. One is Arizona's senator, John McCain, a maverick whose appeal among Granite State voters was strong enough to give him a win there in 2000.

But the Republican with overwhelming apparent advantages in New Hampshire was Romney. For any Massachusetts pol, campaigning in New Hampshire has always been like the Red Sox playing at Fenway Park. On the Democratic side, John Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, and John Kerry all knew that they could count on New Hampshire to give their quests for the presidency boosts. In 1964, while he served as ambassador to South Vietnam for a Democratic president, former Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Richard Nixon's 1960 vice presidential running mate, won the New Hampshire presidential primary.

Given his advantages, the New Hampshire primary has always been a must-win for Romney. The stakes in the Granite State will only get bigger if he loses in Iowa. Failure to win in New Hampshire will spell the end of his quest for the nomination.

Romney operatives must be feeling that they're watching a train wreck, as their candidate, prone to gaffes and exaggerations, loses support in both Iowa and New Hampshire, watches Huckabee surpass him in the first state, and sees McCain revivify his New Hampshire constituency, all at Romney's expense.

If Iowa and New Hampshire produce two different winners and the elimination of Romney from the field, as I expect they will, the winner of the Republican nomination will be unknown through at least the South Carolina primary on January 26. Front-loading be hanged, the Republicans will have a race on their hands.

But in that parallel universe, the race for the Democratic nomination, a very different tale is likely to be told. In recent weeks, Illinois' senator Barack Obama, has been pulling even with or surpassing New York's senator, Hillary Clinton, not only in Iowa, but now in New Hampshire. If Obama wins in Iowa, as I expect that he will, the Democratic race, unlike the one among Republicans, will be effectively over. Barack Obama will then be the Democratic nominee.

The reason is simple. In 2004, the Democrats had a large field that included John Edwards, Wesley Clark, Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean, and John Kerry. When Kerry defied conventional wisdom and won in Iowa, Democratic voters became like traditional ward-heeling politicians, swallowing whatever misgivings they may have had about Kerry to back him. True-believing liberals forgot their loyalty to Dean and got on board with the Massachusetts senator. Democrats, many believing that the Bush Republicans had stolen the 2000 presidential election, were desperate to win. Dems decided to unite behind Kerry.

It almost worked. John Kerry got more votes than any Democratic presidential nominee in history. More than Franklin Roosevelt. More than Lyndon Johnson. Certainly more than Bill Clinton, who only mustered plurality votes in two successive elections. The problem is that George W. Bush got more votes, popular and electoral.

In the intervening years, the Democrats have built up even more desperation to put a Democrat in the White House. If the polls are to believed, quite a lot of independents and not a few Republicans agree with them. Democratic candidates are receiving more contributions from more contributors than their Republican counterparts. Crowds for Democratic candidates are larger and seemingly more enthusiastic than those for Republican candidates. Democratic rank-and-file voters, as much as the party's professionals, want to win in 2008.

If Obama defies the odds and stands down the formidable Clinton machine in Iowa, the trend toward the Illinois senator, in New Hampshire and elsewhere, will become a tidal wave.

Two parallel universes. Two differing scenarios. The result? The presidential nomination of the party which generally gives its nod to the candidate next in line up for grabs. The party which pioneered democratization in its nominating process to give more candidates a shot closing ranks to support one person ten months before the general election.

But, as I always say when making political prognostications: Or not.

[This has been cross-posted at The Moderate Voice.]

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