December 30, 2007

What Does Iowa Mean?

The caucuses in Iowa this week will be the subject of every political reporter in the US, and each of them wants to convince us that the Iowa results are very important. But what exactly do these caucuses mean? To a considerable degree, the result reflects the depth and organization of a politician's local staff. That is why Hilary Clinton has been flying around the state in a helicopter, trying to inspire and energize her people, as well as the more obvious goal of meeting with the public.  Four years ago Kerry did well in Iowa because he inspired a strong local organization. This is one important thing for a candidate, but we found out that Kerry did not run a very good campaign once he got the nomination.  

One of the curious things this year is that Kerry's VP candidate, John Edwards, is running so well. Consider that he failed to deliver a single Southern state to the Democrats, and therefore cost them the election. In 2004, Edwards could not carry his home state, and yet he is considered one of the top three candidates at the moment. 

As of this writing the polls put Edwards in a statistical dead heat with Clinton and Obama, with each getting slightly less than one quarter of the vote.  The problem in Iowa is that knowing who is tied for first is only part of the equation. In the actual caucuses the room is full of people who can, and indeed often must, change their vote, based on the passions and arguments on that night. Iowans are not fickle. Rather, they must assemble at least 15% of the vote in any given hall for a candidate's supporters to be counted at all. So the roughly 30% of the voters who do not want Clinton, Obama, or Edwards all have to switch their votes as the evening progresses. And given the fact that no one has more than 24% of the vote right now, quite possibly in any given meeting one of the leaders will fall short of the 15%.  In other words, Iowa culls out the weaker candidates, and suggests who is acceptable, but it seldom discovers the winner all by itself. The results can surprise, but one should wait to see how voters respond in New Hampshire, where for the first time they use a secret ballot and they have only one chance.

As for the Republicans, things are even more volatile, and my sense is that many voters could change their minds in the next four days or on the night itself. Giuliani, Huckabee, and Romney all have such obvious flaws for some Republicans and most Democrats, that one cannot write off Fred Thompson, even if he has run a rather lackluster campaign until now. Overall, based on my extensive conversations with ordinary Americans last week, all of the Republican front runners generate considerable bad vibes among many voters. Giuliani is by no means everyone's hero, and has even been attacked by some members of the New York Fire Department. He has skeletons aplenty that are not well hidden in the closet, both personal and political. For the Southern wing of the GOP, he is too liberal, too soft on abortion, and too divorced. For Northern Republicans, Huckabee is almost a joke, a caricature of the poorly educated Bible-thumping snake oil salesman, who has no international experience at all. Hardly the sort to put in charge as the US faces such a volatile world.  Romney seems to lack principles, flip-flopping on issues. Many people in Massachusetts, where he was governor, really hate the guy. In any case, polls indicate that more than a third of Americans, perhaps as many as 40%, are not ready to vote for a Mormon. In short, the Republicans have a flawed field, and the average voter is not very excited by anyone in the group, nor the group as a whole.  

All these observations aside, my personal preference as of the moment is Obama, who seems to me the brightest of all the candidates. He is a wonderful breath of fresh air. Besides, we have had Yale in the White House continuously since 1988! Twenty years of Yale, and Hilary would just be more Yale. This being a democracy, it is time to give the former editor of the Harvard Law Review a chance.  However, this particular argument will likely have little weight with the Iowa voter. Which is as it should be.