Greencastle, Ind. – Featured in Iowa this week were the two most important debates — those sponsored by The Des Moines Register — one ice storm and a final, pre-holiday frenzy of TV commercials. It’s time to take stock. This week, the Democrats.
Even more than in the past, reporting on the caucuses has been poll-driven. Seemingly, no reporter can write a story without leading with the latest poll, even though the actual caucus attendees are difficult to find and even harder to interview.
That said, it seems obvious that there are two tiers in Iowa: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards at the top and everyone else below. That’s important, and you’ll see why in a moment.
Campaigning on her inevitability that she certainly will be the eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton has been the frontrunner from day one. There are many reasons to be for Hillary, inevitability being one of them.
Also, you may really believe that she has the necessary experience to be a good president, or that it’s time for a woman, or that you want Bill back. Iowans who want Hillary to win are with her already, and she is not likely to get much of the remaining undecided vote.
Also, Hillary is the top tier candidate who will be helped least by the caucus mechanics. Remember, this is how it works. On the evening of January 3, Democrats will gather mainly in school gymnasiums around the state. The first step is to divide into groups representing their favorite candidates. On the Democratic side, there is a 15 percent threshold, meaning that if supporters of Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson don’t meet that threshold, their supporters can make a second choice and join up with Clinton, Obama or Edwards. As the veteran political columnist Jack Germond puts it, “Hillary is nobody’s second choice.”
So my prediction is that, coming out of the caucuses, Hillary will be weaker than the polls say she was going in. Democrats really want to win this time, and there is a deep fear that nominating Hillary is the least best bet to find a winner. There is still a negative hangover from the Clinton years, and no one doubts that she is the candidate who will stir up Republican turnout, whoever that party nominates.
Remember 2004, when Howard Dean was the surging frontrunner in Iowa until there began to be an apprehension that, hot as he was, Dean could not win. Dean dropped 10 points in the last two weeks and John Kerry rose 20 points.
Hillary has been the prohibitive frontrunner for so long that this race has come to resemble the 1984 Democratic contest in Iowa. Then the candidate of presumed inevitability was former vice president Walter Mondale. Back in the pack were John Glenn, Fritz Hollings, Alan Cranston, Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson and Reuben Askew. The question for Iowans to decide was, “Who is the not-Mondale candidate?” As expected, Mondale won with 49 percent of the vote, more than all of his rivals combined, and three times as many votes as the number two candidate, Gary Hart, who got 16 percent.
On the day of the Iowa caucuses, the Boston Globe poll of New Hampshire voters showed Mondale leading Hart 4 to 1.
There is always the question of whether the Iowa results will influence the outcome in New Hampshire.
Voters in the “Live Free or Die” state are said to cherish their independence and make up their own minds. However, there is always a “bounce” reflecting the Iowa results. In 1984, only eight days after Iowa certified him as the most viable not-Mondale alternative, Gary Hart beat Walter Mondale 41 percent to 29 percent in New Hampshire.
With money and heavy support from the Democratic establishment and labor, Mondale eventually won
the nomination. After Iowa, he focused hard on Hart’s inexperience, with one TV ad showing a ringing red telephone, suggesting the hotline from Moscow, the announcer explaining how important it is to have a seasoned, steady hand to pick up the receiver.
Hillary has the money, and if it’s Obama who surges out of Iowa and into New Hampshire only five days later, you can bet that experience will be the issue du jour over that very important weekend.
So, that’s how it looks from here. Obama and Edwards will run stronger in Iowa than the polls predict, and Hillary will fade. Then it’s up to New Hampshire, where independents can vote and anything can happen.