Digesting Iowa (D)

This is my assessment of the Iowa Democratic caucuses from last night. For my take on the Republican caucuses, click here.

In a word, the Democratic results are earth shattering. Not only did Barack Obama win the caucuses, his strongest rival finished third. Obama will enter New Hampshire with tremendous momentum and the independent voters there will be less likely to defect to McCain because Obama is more energizing and has proven his viability. Doubts about his viability are probably the main reason why people have been reluctant to support Obama even if they do like him and his ideas. More on Obama later.

For Hillary Clinton, this was the worst possible outcome. Even second place would not have been so bad for her, but if she was going to lose, she clearly would have preferred to lose to Edwards because he has less money, weaker polling, and a smaller base. Instead, she finished a distant third to the one candidate who has the money and the supporters necessary to go the distance with her. Worse yet, a lot of voters who had reservations about Obama because they weren't sure if he could win have now had his electability confirmed. Some of these voters are reluctant Clinton supporters. Given the strength of Obama's performance, these voters may defect from Clinton in droves.

And it gets worse. Black voters sitting on the fence in South Carolina were waiting for a sign that Obama could win. Winning convincingly in an overwhelmingly White state over two well-regarded, high profile White candidates who have been on the national scene longer than him is huge. How can Clinton go before Black audiences now and claim she is the most electable candidate who best represents their interests? The answer is simple. She can't.

Perhaps the biggest way Obama's victory has affected the race is that Clinton no longer controls her own destiny. She has ceded this luxury to Obama. For Clinton to win now, she'll need Obama to stumble somehow, be it at a debate or on the campaign trail. If he maintains his campaign discipline, the political inertia he gained from his Iowa victory will be very hard to stop. Prior to Iowa, all she had to do was stick to her gameplan because there was just enough daylight between her and Obama to ensure that she'd have the inside track to the nomination. Not anymore.

The other loser in this race is John Edwards. Edwards barely avoided finishing third. Not one to give up easily, he is trying to spin the results as "a victory for change and a rejection of the status quo." That may be true, but I have argued many, many times in The 7-10 that Obama and Edwards cannot coexist. Edwards had the chance to kneecap Obama in Iowa and he failed to do so. Both Obama and Clinton are performing better than Edwards in both New Hampshire and South Carolina. And the demographics of South Carolina are probably less favorable for Edwards, as roughly half of the voters in the Democratic primary are Black. Edwards is doing worse among Black voters than Obama is among White ones. I don't mean to say that race should be the primary thing that matters in this campaign, but it is a legitimate dimension by which these candidates should be analyzed.

Edwards is also telling his supporters that "he beat Clinton." That is technically true, but he only won by less than half a percentage point. This probably works to Clinton's advantage, as Edwards' refusal to drop out means that she won't have to debate Obama one on one. Had Clinton finished half a point ahead of Edwards, Edwards would have had no choice but to make his graceful exit a la Biden and Dodd. My guess is that Edwards will stay in the race as far as South Carolina, where he is advertising heavily.

And finally, Edwards is saying that "the choice for 'change' is between him and Obama." That is also true, but the fact is that Obama won Round 1 on what was supposed to be Edwards' home turf because he had been campaigning in Iowa for about four years.

It seems like Edwards is about to become the dreaded third wheel, akin to the pesky friend who tags along when two other people are on a date and wish to be left alone. For him to have any chance at the nomination whatsoever, he will need Obama to self destruct so he can become the Clinton alternative. A Clinton meltdown won't help him because Obama has more seniority on the "change" hierarchy.

What about Biden, Dodd, and Richardson? Prior to last night, these three candidates combined were consistently pulling anywhere from 10-20% of the vote in Iowa polls. However, they only snagged about 3% in the caucuses, likely due to the arcane rules involving second choice balloting. The fact that Clinton, Obama, and Edwards won more than 95% of the final vote suggests that the supporters of Biden, Dodd, and Richardson thought that stopping Clinton was more important than ensuring their own preferred candidates' viability. The pro-Clinton vote lost to the anti-Clinton vote by more than 2 to 1.

Biden and Dodd dropped out of the race shortly after learning about their weak finishes. Richardson will live to fight another day, as placing in the top four ensures that he will be allowed to participate in the next debate in New Hampshire this weekend. As for Biden, should Obama win the nomination, do not be surprised if Obama considers him as his running mate because the message of Obama '08 is quite similar to the message of Biden '88 and adding Biden to the ticket would lend Obama's presidential campaign some much needed pragmatism and experience to assuage voters who are not content solely with his message of "change." Ironically, the final reason why this might not be such a far-fetched possibility is because of Biden's mouth. Short of choosing a Republican, the selection of Biden as his running mate would be the ultimate showing of the unity of Obama's message. This is said in reference to Biden's stepping all over his own campaign rollout by referring to Obama as "clean and articulate." Obama-Biden would be the Democratic version of Huckabee-McCain and would make for a spectacular general election campaign.

Here is something the Clintons (yes, plural) should seriously think about. Barack Obama destroyed Hillary Clinton when it came to younger voters. Voters under 35 or so are a generation behind every other presidential candidate, save for Mike Huckabee, who also emerged from Iowa victorious. (That is no coincidence. More on that later.) Most of these younger voters were children or ignorant teenagers during Bill Clinton's presidency. I myself was a high school sophomore when Bill Clinton was first inaugurated, so my memories of the 90s were about Nintendo, MC Hammer, late night pizza in my college dormitory, and being shy talking to girls. As for politics, our generation remembered Clinton's impeachment, but most of us thought that was overkill and couldn't understand why everyone was making such a big deal about "lying under oath" because the lie involved was about something absolutely stupid to us. But that did not endear younger voters to the Clintons. Rather, it succeeded more in turning younger voters away from the Republican Party. The point is, our generation never really developed a connection with Hillary Clinton. Obama, who happens to be the youngest candidate in the Democratic field, is someone who voters in their 20s and 30s can relate to. (I encourage you to read one of my favorite posts about the political disconnect with the younger generation here.)

What happens to Obama now?

There is a critical debate before the New Hampshire primaries. New Hampshire voters will look for Obama to close the sale with them. A poor performance in the debate will blunt the slingshot effect Obama is enjoying now from his Iowa victory. Should Clinton get the better of Obama in this debate, she will likely arrest her fall and get the unfavorable stories about her Iowa defeat off the front pages. Remember, Clinton no longer controls her own destiny. If she does well and Obama does well, nothing will change. Obama has to stumble in order for Clinton to take advantage.

New Hampshire's independent voters can participate in the party primary of their choice. These voters will have to decide between Obama and McCain. Given that Democratic participants outnumbered Republican participants in the Iowa caucuses by about 2 to 1, that suggests that Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are far more enthusiastic about their candidates than Republicans are about theirs. Remember that Iowa is a swing state that narrowly went for Gore in 2000 and narrowly went for Bush in 2004. Could this discrepancy in caucus turnout portend a sea change taking place among the electorate at present?

It has long been argued that Clinton was the candidate of Democratic voters' heads while Obama was the candidate of their hearts. It appears that the heart is stronger. And given Obama's appeal among such a wide swath of voters (entrance poll data is here), it appears that a lot of Democrats "heart" Obama.

Is Clinton likable? Again, she lost to Obama and Edwards by a combined 2 to 1 ratio. Republicans may have done Democratic voters a favor by stressing her high unfavorability ratings. Perhaps these Republicans were unaware of the fact that there are a lot of Democrats who also don't want Hillary Clinton to win the nomination. This is very bad news for Rudy Giuliani in particular, who has made stopping Clinton one of the pillars of his campaign. (You can read more of this argument here. ) Other Republican candidates would be wise to develop a contingency plan for the general election should their nemesis not even make it to the general election because that scenario is a lot more likely now than it was two or three months ago.

It is worth noting that Mike Huckabee has not made Hillary-bashing a focal point of his campaign. And Obama has generally run the most civil campaign of the Big 3 Democratic candidates. Both of these candidates won the Iowa caucuses by healthy margins. Perhaps the electorate is looking for someone not just who wants to bring about a change in direction, but also a change in our political dialogue. Politicians who ran the nastiest campaigns and launched the harshest attacks fared the worst (Giuliani, Clinton, Edwards, Romney). Are we on the cusp of post-partisanship?

An assessment of the entrance poll data will be written later.

6 comment(s):

Silence Dogood said...

Nice analysis as usual. I will take it from this you agreed with my last comment.

Also, you mentioned "Should Clinton get the better of Obama in this debate, she will likely arrest her fall and get the unfavorable stories about her Iowa defeat off the front pages. "

I have actually been amazed that many large news sources have not made Obama the news story, but rather found ways to make Clinton the news story, and positive news stories about her like "will she appoint Bill to the Supreme Court?" "She's still gonna win it, but it's gonna be different" et cetera. Here stranglehold on the media (at least several sources) is shamelesly apparent to me now - see CNN's all politics for examples. As of yesterday she had had several headlines all to herself - none negative. Barack Obama, the actual Democratic winner, had none??? Except two where in he shared the headline and coverage with Huckabee or Edwards. It really struck me as if her staff headquarters and CNN's news decision desk share the same telephone and water cooler. Note Romney, the ostentible winner over much less likely candidate Mick Huckabee is not recieving nearly the same kid glove treatment on the Republican side.

Anthony Palmer said...

Silence Dogood,

I've noticed that about CNN too. They really do seem to cover Clinton more often and more favorably than the other candidates. Their "best political team" is also suspect, as Paul Begala and James Carville are both Clinton loyalists. And I don't much care for partisans when it comes to political analysts on TV, at least people who are partisan to one particular candidate, rather than one particular party.

As for Obama, I am personally tired of hearing his campaign success reduced to stories about him being "the first plausible Black president." I think they should give him credit where credit is due. He ran a great campaign and accomplished something many thought was impossible. He's not a successful Black candidate. He's a successful candidate who happens to be Black, or biracial. I actually might write about that in the future.

So now Dodd is gone. Biden's gone too. Richardson survived, but I think he is actually the weakest of the three "second tier candidates." What do the supporters of these candidates do now? Where do they go? I think I will actually vote in the Republican primary on the 19th because I don't care much for Clinton or Edwards, and I'm only lukewarm about Obama. I love Biden to death and hope he gets selected for VP, but now I have to find a new horse.

On the GOP side, Ron Paul is my favorite candidate, although I could potentially vote for McCain. McCain is essentially a Republican Joe Biden. I like Huckabee's approach to politics, but I strongly disagree with his positions on social issues.

Believe it or not, I actually put a Ron Paul sticker on my car today. He's probably the only candidate remaining who I actually LIKE. I don't want to feel like I'm voting for the lesser of two evils. So now that pragmatists Biden and Dodd are gone, I feel like only Ron Paul is left for libertarian/leave us alone voters like myself. Despite what others may say about him, I actually agree with a lot of his ideas. Too bad he's about 30 years ahead of the rest of the country.

Nikki said...

Anthony........I will be back to comment later. I just read about the bumper sticker. I have to chew on that one for a minute and re group.........:) sigh. sigh again.

Silence Dogood said...

Yeah, as far as my pesonal presidential choices are concerned I am kind of left spinning. I like Edwards the best of the three left on the Democratic side, but as I have stated before, I have never really planned to support him and he just does do that much for me, Obama is a close second in that department and I am considering getting a tatoo on my eyeball before voting for Hillary in the general or primary. As a moderate Democrat I have considered voting for McCain in the primary and the general as he may well mbest represent my views at this point. I find myself wanting to like Edwars more, bu just can't seem to square my beliefs with his. I too feel like post Iowa I am, personally speaking, in one of those "lesser of ___ evils" circumstances you mentioned when it comes to my presidential support at this point.

campbell said...

I'm still wallowing in misery about Joe Biden and can't see him as a VP candidate, although I agree he would help Obama in the experience department. To me, Biden would need to be the boss or he's better off and more effective in the Senate. I think he would have made a great President and the caucus system is just crazy.

Anthony Palmer said...


Yeah, I think the Iowa caucus results really left a lot of Democrats dejected. People who were supporting Biden, Dodd, and Richardson were making a conscious decision NOT to support Obama, Edwards, or Clinton. The fact that they even KNEW about these so called "second tier" candidates shows they were looking for something the so called frontrunners weren't offering.

There's something about the remaining Democrats that everyone can like and dislike. But none of them seems to have the right mix that the departed veterans have. Clinton talks about "experience," but she doesn't really have much. Richardson has experience, but is a dud in the debates. Obama has the charisma, but he doesn't have any policy heft to assuage voters who want more than just nice sounding rhetoric. Edwards has tapped into the anger a lot of voters feel, but these voters also aren't sure if they want an angry president who will likely scare the heck out of Wall Street.

I too do not understand why Iowa gets first crack at something so monumental. I really think they dropped the ball this time. I want to complain about it, but don't know who to talk to. But I do agree with you. This whole caucus system is an absolute mess.

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