January 04, 2008

Iowa Caucuses: Not Clinton, Not Romney, but Obama vs Huckabee?

The Iowa caucuses have spoken. The clear winners are Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama. The clear losers are Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, both of whom spent a lot of time and money in Iowa and came up wanting. She was judged the front runner both in Iowa and nationally until a few weeks ago. But Clinton came in third, slightly behind John Edwards, even though she spent vastly more than Edwards did. It is worth noting that Edwards did slightly worse this time around (30%) than he did in 2004, when he garnered 32%. But Edwards is very much alive, having exceeded polling expectations. Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, failed to win, although she had her husband and heavy-weights such as Madelaine Albright at her side.  

Hillary desperately needs to do well in New Hampshire next week, for there is nothing worse in the presidential primary process than losing momentum. Edwards gained some of that last night, while Obama definitively became the front-runner. He is already the most successful Black candidate for the Presidency that the US has ever seen, and he is developing three campaign themes that Americans have always liked: restoring national unity, time for a change, and throwing out the rascals in Washington. What makes his campaign especially interesting is the surge of college students supporting him. Young people do not vote as reliably as older people. But when thousands of them become excited about a candidate, as happened with John Kennedy in 1960 or Eugene McCarthy in 1968 or Bill Clinton in 1992, such students can have a disproportionate influence on the election. For students have more time and energy than most others, and they will throw themselves full time into a campaign they believe in. Will New England's college students also turn out for Obama? If so, that will be a sign that new energies are going to redefine American politics in 2008.

Obama received the same percentage of support (38%) that John Kerry had in 2004. Recall that the front runner before the Iowa caucuses that time was Howard Dean, whose candidacy faded rapidly after his poor showing. This time around the Iowa voters have shown that Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Mike Gravel, and Dennis Kucinich have virtually no traction with the voters. Together, all of them managed to garner only 3% of the delegates. They are effectively out of the race, which will be further clarified on Tuesday. Should Clinton continue to falter, then it might become a two-man contest between Obama and Edwards.

On the Republican side, the clear winner was Mike Huckabee, the affable Arkansas governor. He is a charming salesman for banning abortion and other conservative causes. The latest avatar of the "compassionate conservatism" that George Bush claimed to represent in the 2000 election, Huckabee garnered passionate support from evangelicals and other religious minded conservatives. They turned out for him and defeated the far more heavily financed Romney campaign. He has lost some momentum, but has a chance to regain it in New Hampshire, which in theory ought to lean his way. After all, Romney was the Republican governor of Massachusetts, which normally votes Democratic, and he evidently knows how to talk to the Yankee voter. By comparison, the Baptist preacher Huckabee with his southern accent will sound like a foreigner in the Granite State.

However, Romney's main opponents in New Hampshire are John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani skipped the Iowa caucuses, calculating that he would be better off using his time and money on the later primaries. McCain almost skipped Iowa, but decided to make a partial effort there, once he saw that he might place a respectable third, which he did.  So Romney runs the risk in New Hampshire of coming in second again. In that case, he might be through. For Huckabee showed that Romney cannot excite the conservative religious Republicans, even in Iowa; he would surely appeal to them even less in Alabama. Quite possibly either McCain or Giuliani will demonstrate that Romney is also the second choice among the more secular Republicans.

It is early in the campaign, and almost all the votes are still to be cast. But Iowa has suggested the possibility of a presidential race between a White Baptist preacher and governor from Arkansas and a Black lawyer and Senator from  Illinois. For US politics, that would be an absolute (and polarizing?) contrast in political goals, personality, and values. But if these turn out to be the candidates, then Obama will already occupy the middle of the spectrum, while Huckabee will have to work hard to show he represents more than the evangelicals.