9/30/2007

Roadmaps to the Nomination (D)

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote an excellent analysis about how national polling obscures the true state of the presidential race. By looking at the national polls, one would think that Hillary Clinton was light years ahead of the rest of the field and that Rudy Giuliani was favored to win the GOP nomination.

However, the polls in the early voting states suggest a far more competitive race. In Iowa, for example, Hillary Clinton is in a real dogfight with John Edwards and Barack Obama while Mitt Romney dominates the Republican field.

As Rothenberg suggested, these Iowa polls are far more meaningful than the national polls because voters in Oregon, Georgia, Nebraska, and Connecticut (whose opinions are reflected in national polling data) really haven't been exposed to the presidential race nearly as much as the voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have. People in Des Moines, Concord, Dubuque, and Nashua have had multiple chances to meet the presidential candidates. They've been able to benefit from intense retail politicking, town halls, meet-ups, and house parties featuring the various candidates.

Having said that, some candidates are obviously better positioned to win the nomination than others. In this post, I'll assess the various Democrats' chances at getting a crack at the White House next November. Keep in mind that these are only my opinions about these candidates' path to the nomination, not the presidency itself. The percentage listed after each candidate's name is how likely I think that candidate is to win the Democratic nomination.

Hillary Clinton (60%)

Of all eight declared Democratic candidates, Clinton has the easiest path to the nomination. Her national polling is exceptionally strong and she is commonly seen as the inevitable or de facto nominee. Having said that, the two places where she is most vulnerable are South Carolina and Iowa. If Clinton manages to win Iowa, I honestly don't see how any other candidate could stop her. New Hampshire, the site of the second contest, serves as a buffer state for her because she's running quite strongly there. So an Iowa victory would be reinforced by a New Hampshire victory, which should give her enough political inertia to win South Carolina. If this happens, it's game over for the other candidates.

Clinton also has the war chest and campaign organization to survive a prolonged battle should she lose some of the early states. It's a well known fact that in politics, name recognition matters. And with the millions and millions of dollars sitting in her coffers, she will be better able to redefine her political opponents than they can.

Losing Iowa and South Carolina obviously would be devastating to her campaign, but not fatal because of her name recognition and campaign cash. However, there are other variables that could submarine her campaign that are out of her control. In the privacy of the voting booth or when it's actually time to caucus, will voters simply decide that they want to make a clean break from the Bush-Clinton snipping? Will voters simply decide that she's not as electable as they had originally thought? Is there a contingent of voters who simply won't vote for a female even though they've "supported" her campaign thus far?

In short, Clinton's roadmap to the nomination offers much more room for error than the other candidates', but she is not as invincible as she'd like to have others believe.

Barack Obama (20%)

Obama is generally running in second in most polls. The most important state for him is South Carolina, which has a large percentage of Black voters who will participate in the Democratic primary. If he loses Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina will be his make or break state. It is highly unlikely that Obama will sweep Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. However, to win the nomination, he needs to win at least South Carolina and one other state. If he can basically split the early states, he will have the money and the momentum to compete with Clinton nationally.

One factor going for Obama that is difficult to quantify is how broad his support really is. It is no secret that Obama performs best among younger voters. This is a big deal because these voters (the 18-30 crowd) often don't have regular phone service. Polling companies generally don't call cell phones (which younger people are more likely to use), which means Obama's support might be underrepresented in the polls. Obama definitely has legions of dedicated supporters and they are turning out to his events in staggering numbers. If John Edwards gets knocked out in Iowa and no other candidate emerges, the race for the nomination truly will be Clinton vs. Obama, which would pit the establishment, experience, and Clintonian toughness against something bold, new, and different.

John Edwards (10%)

In a word, John Edwards' chances come down to one word and one word only: Iowa. Second place is not good enough for him there. John Edwards must win Iowa. It's the state he's placed all his chips in. It's the state where he's done the bulk of his campaigning. He must win the Iowa caucuses. And that's just to survive. Edwards will likely be hamstrung for cash, especially in light of his recent decision to accept public financing for his campaign.

To win, Edwards will need Obama to fizzle. If he can seize Obama's mantle of being the true "change" candidate, he can ride the outsider populist message to a one-on-one battle against Clinton. Interestingly, Clinton is more of a hawk on terrorism than Edwards is even though their genders may initially lead voters to think otherwise. If there are voters who are reluctant to vote for Clinton because they fear she's not going to be tough on terrorism and defense, how will they vote if their alternative is John Edwards, who seems more dovish, as he views keeping combat troops in Iraq to fight terrorism as a way of "continuing the war" there?

Having said that, Edwards is definitely in touch with the issues on the minds of a lot of voters, namely health insurance and poverty. It all begins with Iowa and using a victory there to give him momentum in South Carolina, his home state and the first Southern state to have a primary contest. John Edwards must win Iowa and then must win South Carolina in order to remain viable. However, his lack of fundraising and his decision to opt for public financing will really put him at a disadvantage if Clinton is the last candidate standing.

So to summarize, Edwards must win Iowa, place at least second in New Hampshire, win South Carolina, have Obama underperform in all three states, and then enter Super Tuesday with strong momentum and Clinton burning through her war chest quickly to even stand a chance at winning the nomination.

Joe Biden (5%)

Joe Biden is in an interesting position right now. He commonly registers about 3-5 percent in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, which is outside of the margin of error. So there is definitely a small core of voters in his camp. However, Biden also has a large number of endorsements from members of the Iowa state legislature who have endorsed his campaign. If all politics is local, then this could work to Biden's advantage, as Iowa's voters may give the opinions of their local leaders more credence than the national pundits'. His message on Iraq is definitely the most realistic one out there and is also the only one out there that has generated significant Republican support. Biden needs to stress this.

Like Richardson, Biden has said that he needed to place in the top 3 in Iowa in order to continue his campaign. In order to do this, Biden needs voters to take a pass on Richardson and have the messages of Obama, Edwards, and Clinton blurred regarding Iraq and Iran. If he can convince voters that Obama and Edwards are oversimplifying Iraq while using Clinton's Iran vote against her, Biden may gain credibility in the eyes of voters, thus allowing him to adopt the "change" and "leadership" mantles. However, the "change" Biden would be selling would be a "change" back to competence and straight talk, words that are generally not used to describe George Bush. To bring down Clinton, he would need to continue working the polarization argument of her not being able to generate much Republican support for any of her legislation. He can also turn her refusal to engage in "hypotheticals" against her as demonstrating a lack of leadership. Pragmatic voters may respond to this.

In short, despite his weaker fundraising, I believe Biden is better positioned than Richardson because of his endorsements and his consistently stronger debate performances. If he can place second or third in Iowa while knocking out Richardson and Obama (or Edwards), it will be much easier for him to distinguish himself in New Hampshire. He could more easily distinguish himself if his main rivals are only Clinton and Obama or Clinton and Edwards. Having Richardson, Dodd, and all the other candidates in the field only create interference that makes his message harder to get out.

Bill Richardson (3%)

Richardson has said that he must place in the top 3 in Iowa, otherwise he would drop out of the race. This is not an impossible task. He has raised a respectable amount of campaign cash and has improved his name recognition, courtesy of his humorous "Job Interview" ads. He has the best resume of all the Democrats running and could be an electoral nightmare for the GOP, as he would be difficult to label as a liberal. And he's more credible on guns than both Romney and Giuliani. However, he has underwhelmed in the debates, much to the disappointment of his supporters.

To place in the top three, Richardson needs to lump Edwards and Obama together as being too inexperienced regarding foreign policy to be trusted with the presidency. He should also use their inability to guarantee a complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq by 2013 as another avenue of attack that should appeal to antiwar voters. Clinton is a bit more difficult to attack on inexperience, so he could emphasize his ability to bring different groups together as New Mexico's governor and contrast this with Clinton's polarization.

Richardson has an outside chance to place in the top 3. If he does, he is fairly well positioned to do as well in New Hampshire (he's polling a strong 4th there) and Nevada (a Western state with a large Hispanic population). If Richardson is one of the final three candidates standing after Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire, his argument that he embodies both "change" and "experience" could resonate with voters, since the other two candidates would likely be Clinton and either Obama or Edwards.

Chris Dodd (1.5%)

Dodd is generally registering at 1 percent in most polls. He hasn't really distinguished himself in the debates so far, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Because he is largely undefined, he can benefit from low expectations. Dodd's biggest weapon is his campaign war chest. Dodd needs Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Richardson, and Biden all to beat up on each other enough and deplete their resources before jumping into the fray and using his own money to go on offense once everyone else has been bloodied.

Although I have not been able to find any information about how long Dodd plans to stay in the race, I'd imagine that he would go as far as New Hampshire before dropping out. New Hampshire is close to his home state of Connecticut, so perhaps he has built up a reservoir of goodwill among the voters there, but he seems to be struggling to register in the polls there as well.

In short, Dodd needs to sit back and let the other candidates destroy each other. When they are all weakened, he can use his campaign cash to portray himself as an unpolarizing elder statesman. Maybe that will be enough to get him to place third in Iowa, but it's hard to see him doing any better than that.

Dennis Kucinich (.5%)

For antiwar liberals, Kucinich's ideological purity has been refreshing to listen to. However, outside of this wing of the party, Kucinich is not seen as a credible candidate. The only scenario I can envision that has Kucinich becoming a serious threat would be if there were some sort of groundswell of antiwar voters who were railing against the status quo. And it would have to take place in state after state.

Mike Gravel (0%)

For this favorite of late night comedians to win, Gravel needs all of the other candidates to drop out of the race, hope Al Gore does not jump in the race, and then hope Mickey Mouse does not emerge as a write-in candidate somewhere along the way. Gravel has made a lot of strong and insightful arguments, but he is not a credible candidate.

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Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.