Tuesday, January 01, 2008

What Does Iowa Mean If Obama, Huckabee Win?

Happy New Year! To my readers, I want to assure you, I appreciate your attention, and pledge to do the best I can to make things interesting for you, and new readers, in 2008.

In just two days, after intensive campaigning by the various candidates all through 2007, the actual voting in the 2008 election begins with the Iowa Caucuses. A final poll by the Des Moines Register indicated that on the Democratic side, Sen. Barack Obama had the lead over Sen. Hillary Clinton, 32% to 25%, with former Sen. John Edwards running third at 24%. On the Republican side, the poll showed former Gov. Mike Huckabee led former Gov. Mitt Romney, 32% to 26%, with Sen. John McCain third at 13%.

Five days after Iowa, the New Hampshire primary will be held. A 7News/Suffolk University Poll out this morning showed McCain having burst into the lead over Romney there, 31% to 25%, with former Mayor Giuliani at 14% and Huckabee at 9%, and Clinton leading Obama, 36% to 22%, with Edwards at 14%.

It is notoriously hard to predict very precisely these first caucuses and primary, because, in Iowa, there is an opportunity for those casting votes for lesser contenders in the first round of balloting in each caucus, to cast a second vote for one of the top candidates before the final votes are tabulated, (votes for any candidate in an individual caucus totaling less than 15% of the total can be recast), and, in New Hampshire, independents can cast a vote in whichever party primary they wish.

The New Hampshire rule on independents gives a candidate coming out of Iowa with a sound performance new momentum that may reverberate in that candidate's favor with the independents, especially perhaps in the case of a centrist or new candidate.

With all this in mind, it seems most striking to me that if Obama can defeat Clinton in Iowa, he could stand to pick up many independent votes in New Hampshire and move up there against Clinton dramatically. However, should Obama fall short in Iowa, then voters excited by a possible winner in their state of New Hampshire may flock to McCain.

This leads to the conclusion that Iowa could prove devastating to the fortunes of Clinton and Romney, if they do not lead in the caucuses. With Clinton, it could puncture whatever aura of invincibility she has left. Indeed, a third place finish for Clinton in Iowa could, ultimately, mean an early end to her campaign. With Romney, especially considering his concentrated campaigning in Iowa, a loss to Huckabee there could prove very destructive to his ultimate chances.

It is too early, in my view, to be very definitive about what a Huckabee victory in Iowa might mean to him. He is so new a candidate, as far as the national consciousness goes, that there is no settled opinion about him at all, and he has said a few things in recent days, such as Pakistani illegal immigrants threatening the U.S., that do not make much sense. Voters' second thoughts about him might not be as favorable as their first. But in nationwide polls, Huckabee has, for the time being, moved into the front rank.

Campaign prediction is an art, and to be frank, despite my 40 years experience covering politics, and studying politics before that, in college, I was never all that good at it. There were election results I did predict accurately, especially the Ronald Reagan victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980. But that was easy. From the time Carter's attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran failed on April 25 of that year, Carter was a goner.

Otherwise, my record is speckled, sometimes prone to wishful thinking. I felt sure Tom Bradley would win the mayoralty in Los Angeles in 1969, but Sam Yorty won with a bitterly racist campaign. I also felt Jerry Brown would win the governorship of California with a substantial margin in 1974, and he won only narrowly. In fact, I was so disappointed with the misleading results of a personal poll of voters I had conducted in several precincts that I halted all such personal polling and never did it again. The Republican candidate that year, Houston Flournoy, was disgusted with me. He felt my poll results may have helped Brown, and that he could well have won if they had not been prominently printed in the L.A. Times.

On the other hand, I've known some political experts who could, seemingly, predict elections with pinpoint accuracy. In the 1970 Alabama governorship race between George Wallace and Albert Brewer, three persons I knew in Alabama -- the Alabama Journal editorial page editor Ray Jenkins, the University of Alabama political science professor Donald Strong, and Wallace's press secretary, Bill Jones -- all independently predicted the results of the first round, and then the runoff, within 10,000 votes. Brewer won in the first round, getting a plurality in a multi-candidate field, but Wallace took the decisive second round, when he and Brewer were the only candidates on the ballot.

Also, I've found down through the years that David Broder of the Washington Post often was correct about elections. Broder was one of the first to say that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be elected governor of California in the Recall election, (and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky also said that, quite early, as did Michael Berman, the political guru who is a brother of Rep. Howard Berman).

Broder now is high on Obama's chances and low on Clinton's. He wrote the other day that Obama's standard political campaign speech was a masterpiece. Broder was one of the first to identify former President Bill Clinton as a drawback to Hillary Clinton's campaign.

I found in California politics that Lu Haas, longtime aide of Sen. Alan Cranston, Los Angeles Times managing editors Frank Haven and George Cotliar, and National Editor Ed Guthman were often right on the money with their predictions.

On the other hand, when I was down South, there was a political editor at the Miami Herald by the name of McDermott who was unfailingly wrong about what the results in that state would be. If he said one of the two major candidates in a particular race was going to win, I learned to predict that the other would. That made me look better in that state.

The other night, my son David asked me who I thought would win the party nominations in 2008. I told him Clinton and McCain. Then, hours later, I read the Des Moines Register poll about Iowa, and thought I might have missed on Clinton. Her campaign in the Hawkeye state does not seem to have gone well, and a loss there could cost her, as I said above.

I've endorsed Obama and McCain and naturally hope they win. But to be a good political predictor, you can't allow personal likes and dislikes to interfere with the predictions. Maybe, I have not been as coldheartedly realistic, from time to time, as some of my detractors felt.

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