January 3, 2008
The horses are at the starting gates at last. Late tonight or early tomorrow we’ll find out who first emerge from the presidential packs in quirky Iowa. Tuesday it’s New Hampshire, and in another month, after what they’re calling Super-Duper Tuesday on February 5, we’ll have the winners — or will we?
Maybe not. Despite months and months (and months) of relentless campaigning, millions and millions (and millions) of media dollars, countless talk-show appearances, and all those mostly silly debates, polls of both parties show no breakaways. In fact, as primary time approaches, the playing field is leveler now than it was months ago: Obama has gained on Clinton, with Edwards still nipping at them both; Huckabee is overtaking Romney, Giuliani is slipping, and McCain, once deemed good as gone, is starting a surge (in the conventional sense).
In their interviews, the polling people always ask: "If the election were held today, whom would you vote for?" Far more than in previous years, in this campaign the operative word is "today," as voter priorities shift like desert sands. Early in the year, as the candidates were declaring and debating, the burning issue was Iraq. Now that American casualties are down, the occupation of Iraq (why does anybody still call it a war?) has become just another long-term taxpayer’s burden, a Giant Earmark by a president who vetoes spending bills with piddly little earmarks for cultural centers and bridge repair. That, coupled with the administration’s newfound negotiating with the other two points on the Axis of Evil, North Korea and Iran, tamped down the international tension level and halted the momentum of the tough-on-terror candidates, Clinton on one side and Mr. 9/11 on the other. Obama of the New Ideas (though I’m not sure I’ve heard any) and the Happy Christian Camper Huckabee moved forward as domestic issues began to dominate. Last week’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan may reverse this trend and allow a point of entry for the foreign-policy experts from the "second tier," as the press have named the hopeless — McCain, Biden, and Richardson.
The next few months will be the most exciting in decades of presidential politics. With the "first-tier" candidates in both parties now running neck-and-neck in Iowa and New Hampshire, there will be no bellwethers from these states this time. Every single vote in January (even tiny Wyoming’s Republican convention on January 5) will be watched closely, not for delegate count (Michigan’s primaries on January 15 have been denied delegates by both the Democratic and Republican national committees for jumping the gun on Super-Duper Tuesday) but for signs of a tipping point toward a nominee. Then comes February 5, when over 20 states hold primaries or caucuses.
My bet is that not even February 5, nor the several primaries and caucuses that follow it, will determine the nominee of either party. The committed will find no reason to switch, and the undecided will spread their votes more or less evenly over the slate. By convention time this summer, no candidate will have amassed enough delegates to enter as the winner. Then Old-time Politics, the kind we haven’t seen in at least 35 years, will take over: All that ad money down the drain, only to have the nominee selected in smokeless rooms and with multiple floor votes. The convention will become the high drama it once was.
This outcome is likely among the Republicans because none of the contenders is satisfactory to them. Huckabee, the Christian candidate, is suspect by many evangelicals for his leftward leanings on immigration and incarceration. Giuliani, the thrice-married apostate Catholic trying to live down his longtime liberality on gays, guns, abortion, and immigration, will never be able to woo enough of the party base. Romney, the Eastern moderate just recently converted to conservatism, may be rejected not as a Mormon but as an untrustworthy opportunist. And McCain the Maverick, though probably the most electable in November, has that long history of rankling the rank-and-file on fundamental issues. In the December 20-26 Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll in Iowa and New Hampshire, only 42% of Iowa’s Republican voters and 35% of New Hampshire’s said they could support any of the five major candidates.
Here the Democrats fare much better: In the same poll, 61% in Iowa and 51% in New Hampshire said they could support Clinton, Edwards, or Obama equally. This too may lead to an even distribution of delegates. Because there is so little difference among the front-runners in terms of policy, primary and caucus voters may find no reason to switch from their personal favorites.
This leaves the most tantalizing prospect of all: the Dark Horse. For the Republicans, a hopelessly deadlocked convention could well draft Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, even though he may be running as an independent. Non-ideological, pragmatic, and untarred by the dismal Bush "legacy," he may come to be seen as the best person to unite the party and give it a chance to pull off an unlikely victory.
For the Democrats, someone may be called upon to break a Clinton-Obama impasse. Dodd and Richardson (but not Edwards) have ample credibility to do it. The present list of candidates is so harmonious and competent in foreign and domestic policy that a cabinet is already pre-formed; it only seeks a head.
After a year of campaign tedium, something truly exciting is about to happen. Let the games begin!