Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Value Of Iowa, New Hampshire For The System

New Hampshire primary day is, need it be said, a significant milestone, in an election that, like 1800, 1860 and 1932, may mark profound change in the American political system.

And yet, some people ask, is it in the national interest that two largely rural states with comparatively small populations and ethnic makeups that are atypical (few African-Americans and Latinos) should have such crucial roles in shaping who becomes the presidential nominees. In past years, such first tests knocked Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson out of reelection bids. This year, they seem to have doomed the Democratic candidacy of Sen. Hillary Clinton and boosted to prominence, and even a lead in the national Republican polls, of former Gov. Mike Huckabee. All this before 99% of the American people have had a chance to vote.

A new NATIONAL Gallup poll out last night showed there has already been a sea change in the prospects. While Clinton led Sen. Barack Obama by 20 points in the polls just a month ago, Obama is now deadlocked with her 33% to 33%. On the Republican side, Huckabee, running third or fourth a month ago, now leads the field with 25%, to former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's 20% and Sen. John McCain's 19%. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal, in a front page story this morning by Jackie Calmes, reports that some Clinton associates "have begun lobbying for her early exit" if she loses big tonight, that Clinton already "faces financial worries" and that several U.S. senators are in talks about an Obama endorsement, as is the important Culinary Workers Union in Nevada, which has caucuses later this month.

It begins to sound that the scintillating Obama, an orator with some of Lincoln's sublime eloquence and the first African-American with a significant chance to be elected president, could have the Democratic nomination pretty well wrapped up even before 23 states vote Feb. 5.

Does such an early decision have value? I'm going to argue today that the answer may be yes, that while it may not be a perfect system, it is a system that has advantages.

A Canadian woman named Tess last night, commenting on earlier blogs, asked two "basic" questions which I think are highly pertinent, and which I'm now going to try to answer.

First, she asks, "Why are the opinions of voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada so important? Are they meant to influence voters who have different demographics in different states or just to indicate the tide?"

Second, she asks, "Given that the Democratic convention is in August, why are January results so important?"

To the first question, I'd say that the early states are important in part because they are small enough to permit intensive, protracted campaigning on almost a person-to-person basis, which allows a politically-intelligent electorate, such as exists in Iowa and New Hampshire, to come to some very solid conclusions about the nature and appeal of the contending candidates.

Frequently what happens is that the impression they gain of these candidates, given all the advertising and personal appearances in every village and town, changes materially over the time before the voting begins. The campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire lasted all through 2007, and the result was that (1) on the Democratic side, Obama emerged and Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards faltered, while (2) on the Republican side, Huckabee emerged, McCain seems to have recovered some of his earlier strength, and Romney faltered.

Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani chose not to compete, and that now seems to have been a mistake. Clinton held off making the commitment to campaigning in Iowa that Obama made, and realized too late that she was falling behind there.

My feeling is that were we to go first to a regional primary, or a primary in big states, there would simply not be this opportunity for a really in depth view of the candidates in a specific locale.

Another factor, too, is that press coverage of the developing campaign is facilitated by its location, at the start, in one or two places. The press coverage is altogether more focused than it would be if there were primaries in several large states at once, at the outset, although, of course, it can be argued, and Mary McNamara made a stab at it in the L.A. Times last week, that the press blows the importance of the first voting results out of proportion and, in this Internet age of instant communication, creates a firestorm of enthusiasm for one or two candidates, as we've seen with Obama in the last week.

More, however, than "indicating a tide," as Tess suggests, the present system allows a very deep look at the candidates. When someone, like Clinton, proves unsuitable, or questions arise as to whether the Clintons are trying to perpetuate a dynasty, the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire call an early halt, before a Clinton candidacy does acquire inevitability. Down the road, Clinton was going to have problems anyway. Why should they not surface at this early stage, so the country can go on to other debates about other candidates?

As to Tess' second question, "Given that the Democratic convention is in August, why are January results so important?," the answer is that this year in particular, there has been such a crushing desire in the country to move on from the Bush Administration that, with no incumbents running, the campaign came to life a full year earlier than normal, and, in fact, has been going on intensively for months, drawing unusually high attention. January in this event, is not the beginning of the process, but its middle. Maybe, the country is ready for a decision on the nominees.

It has been suggested in some quarters that this time, the process began too early, and that the first primaries should not have been held until March, when they used to begin. I think there is some merit to this. Similarly, it might be too bad if Iowa and New Hampshire were to determine everything. It might be more desirable to go on at least to Michigan (for the Republicans) and South Carolina later this month, where there is a substantial black population to be heard from. (However, regardless, this may still turn out to be a pretty good year for African-Americans and American racial equality). In any case, the tide has already turned in South Carolina. Polls a few weeks ago showed a 33% to 33% tie between Clinton and Obama. Obama has now moved out to a 42% to 30% lead with three weeks to go until the Democratic primary.

Another question involves scrutiny of Obama and Huckabee. (The Republican contest is certainly going to go on to Feb. 5, and the Democratic one may not be totally resolved by then, unless Clinton assesses her real prospects and decides to get out, which, as I've been saying, I think is a possibility. Why prolong her personal torture?).

Suppose, for the sake of argument, the scrutiny that will now move from Clinton and Romney, to Obama, Huckabee and, possibly, McCain, were to develop striking new negative facts about one or more of the three? Then, presumably, there would be time before the convention for delegates to change their minds, even if they were supposedly "committed," and reopen the contest. Certain candidates, like Edwards, Thompson or Giuliani, might then have a second chance. It is even possible that Clinton would resurface, if she did not have the superior candidacy of Obama to contend with.

Well, there is my attempt to answer Tess's questions. It may generate others.

Finally, today, I want to broach one other issue -- that of the possible independent candidacy of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. There are many reports he is planning to get in the race.

I believe in an Obama-Huckabee or Obama-McCain general election contest this could be very undesirable. It could, in fact, tip the election to the Republican, a result that would be anathema to millions of Americans determined on a change in Washington. They would feel the outcome was unfair, with profoundly negative ramifications for the country.

The effect of Ross Perot's candidacy in 1992 was the opposite of what Perot apparently intended. He took enough votes to very possibly tip the contest to Bill Clinton. A similar thing happened in 1912. Then, the progressive candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt, an insurgency against the incumbent, William Howard Taft, ended up by electing the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.

Much the same thing could happen this year, if Bloomberg ran. I don't think he could win himself, but he might destroy Obama's chances, Entering as a moderate-to-liberal candidate, he could destroy the chances of the liberal Obama rather than the conservative Huckabee or McCain. Maybe not, but I wouldn't want to take that chance. Bloomberg, in my view, should give up his aspirations.

I guess that, just like with the Amy Wilentz book I reviewed last week, I don't want to give any New Yorker -- Clinton, Giuliani or Bloomberg -- a chance to muck things up just when the country has an opportunity like Obama. (smile).

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