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Clinton as Truman, McCain as Lazarus, Obama-Mania, Hucka-boom or Bush, and the Presidential Players

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

Thursday, January 10, 2008

First, we at the Crystal Ball want to get one thing straight with our readers. We are for change. We have worked for change our whole lives. We are truly change agents. And we haven't just talked about change, we've accomplished change--as long as you consider publishing books and articles about change to be accomplishments (doubtful, but we're entitled to make our case). Even better, being long in the tooth, we're experienced in bringing about change, so we possess the unbeatable dynamic duo of experience and change. Ah, we feel better. We're in tune with the spirit of the season. Those of you who are for the status quo need to think about what we have just said. Your day is over. You're on the "Out" list for 2008. Please don't cry, although tearing up could help you.

Now let's move to the business of one of the most exciting weeks in politics ever. We've registered our objections to the current Iowa-New Hampshire system on several occasions, and we want to stress again that only about 5 percent of the voters in the United States have had a chance to weigh in as yet. Could we please wait for at least a decent portion of the other 95 percent to cast a ballot before we shut down the process?

Still, being part-time realists, we'll deal with the system we have rather than the system we want. Thanks to the insane frontloading in 2008, the role of Iowa and New Hampshire has actually been magnified further. On the Democratic side, that small-state duo first sidetracked and then boosted the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. In a stunning upset of Clinton, who was the poll-designated frontrunner, Barack Obama won Iowa with a comfortable 38 percent to John Edwards 30 percent and Clinton's poor third-place 29 percent. With just five days between Iowa and New Hampshire--the shortest time ever--Obama at first was able to ride his momentum to a wide lead in all the public polls. But the polls were wrong--every single one of them (see related article on what happened). Clinton defeated Obama narrowly in the Granite State, 39 percent to 36.4 percent. The good news for all the Democrats was that far more votes were cast in their primary (288,000) than for the Republicans (239,000) for the first time ever, when both parties had contested races without a GOP incumbent President running. This is yet more proof of New Hampshire's defection from the bloc of Red states.

The picture is more complicated on the GOP side. Mike Huckabee's Iowa win, upsetting former Iowa poll leader Mitt Romney by 34 percent to 25 percent, started a tailspin for Romney without creating Big Mo, or even Little Mo, for Huckabee in New Hampshire. The beneficiary of Huckabee's surprise was John McCain, given up for dead even by many of his own supporters after his campaign meltdown last summer. The unsettled GOP field, with no frontrunner, enabled McCain to stage a comeback worthy of Richard Nixon, or maybe Lazarus, in the Granite State. McCain defeated Romney, 37 percent to 32 percent, with Huckabee a poor third at 11 percent. However, Romney managed to capture Republicans in New Hampshire by a statistically insignificant 1 percent over McCain. It was McCain's large 40 percent to 27 percent margin among Independent (unaffiliated) voters that produced his plurality edge. Keep in mind that McCain did far better in New Hampshire eight years ago against George W. Bush, when he won by 18 percentage points, also mainly on the strength of Independents. After a subsequent victory in Michigan back then, McCain crashed and burned in South Carolina and Virginia.

Just as in 2000, McCain will face tough challenges in the South and among conservatives and strong Republican party identifiers as he moves beyond New Hampshire and Michigan (where he has to be rated the early "momentum" favorite against native son Romney). The key question is this: Can McCain manage to carry states he lost in 2000 by becoming as much of a darling in his own party as he is among Independents and the news media? If so, McCain could emerge as the nominee this time around. Yet McCain is despised by various wings of the GOP for his pro-immigration, anti-Bush tax cut, and pro-campaign finance reform stands. McCain must win over some of these voters, mainly using the electability argument--"I'm the one who can defeat Clinton or Obama in November, and the other Republican contenders cannot." If McCain fails to make progress with these key target groups, either his hopes for the GOP nomination will be dashed or a conservative independent candidate may arise to take a critical several percent of the general election vote from GOP nominee McCain in November. Of course, Hillary Clinton will remain the Republican nominee's best friend, assuming she's the Democratic standard-bearer. Having responsibility for electing Hillary may deter some possible independent conservatives.

South Carolina on January 19th looms as a critical test for McCain versus Huckabee, and possibly Romney, if he's still in the race, and Fred Thompson, who apparently is still running after his 1 percent showing in New Hampshire--no, that number was not a misprint. Rudy Giuliani's strategy of waiting until Florida on January 29th to make his stand has appeared improbable for some time. Nonetheless, even Rudy's gambit has a chance of working under the right circumstances. Giuliani has always hoped for chaos in the Republican field, with different candidates winning different contests in January, and chaos could be descending on schedule.

By the way, just a moment, please, to weep for Wyoming. It held its GOP caucus contest on January 5th, right after Iowa and before New Hampshire. The Cowboy State picked the first honest-to-Pete delegates to the Republican National Convention. (Iowa only chose delegates to its state conventions.) Mitt Romney won the lion's share of delegates that day (almost 67 percent). Yet Wyoming's election was barely mentioned by the media, and Romney received no boost out of it. Did we miss something? Is Wyoming now a second class state? Why does it deserve dramatically less attention than the elections in two other small, unrepresentative states, Iowa and New Hampshire? Isn't it obvious just how arbitrary the presidential selection process has become?

Back to the Democrats...Since 1972, every candidate in both parties who has won the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary has been nominated. Of course, two candidates, both Democrats, who lost Iowa and New Hampshire still managed to get nominated (George McGovern in 1972 and Bill Clinton in 1992)--giving some modest hope to John Edwards. But the odds are enormous that either Clinton or Obama will be the Democratic nominee.

Edwards can play a critical role, though. He shows every sign of continuing his campaign, which is certainly his right. But he may have the ability to determine the Democratic nomination by ending what will very likely be a losing campaign and endorsing either Obama or Clinton. (One assumes it would be Obama, given the antipathy that exists between Clinton and Edwards, but with politicians you never know anything for sure until they do it.) Usually candidates never withdraw until they run out of money or energy. Edwards may have sufficient quantities of both to last through February 5th, but he may discard his ability to play kingmaker if he waits that long. Maybe he doesn't mind: Most presidential candidates really don't care much who is President if it's not them.

The question of Obama's race also has to be raised, too, in the 95 percent-white Granite State. Why were all the polls so wrong in New Hampshire? Why did even the private tracking polls conducted by the paid consultants to Clinton and Obama show Obama on the verge of a huge 11-14 percent victory that turned into a 3 percent defeat? I have studied the phenomenon of "racial leakage"--the tendency of a few percent of white voters to fib to pollsters about their voting choice--and many of the telltale signs were here. Other than the universality of the inaccurate public and private polls--all done by reputable outfits--another tip-off was the networks' exit poll, which was right on the money in the GOP contest (+5 percent for McCain) while simultaneously projecting a dead wrong +5 percent victory margin for Obama. How could that happen? I recall Douglas Wilder's candidacy for Governor of Virginia in 1989, when the state was about 83 percent white. All the pre-election polls had Wilder up about 10 points, and sure enough, the exit poll on Election Day showed him winning by 10 percent. In fact, Wilder eked out a 6,000-vote victory out of 1.9 million votes cast. How do we know the exit poll wasn't simply wrong? Because the same poll, taken by the same interviewers, outside the same polling places, with the same voters leaving their precincts, got the percentages for the winners of the other statewide contests exactly right. Just in Wilder's case was the exit poll wrong, and Wilder was the only minority on the ballot. There are many other modern examples of this phenomenon in other states and cities.

What will this mean going forward? Maybe less than we think. Few other states are as white as New Hampshire. In South Carolina, for instance, about half the voters in the upcoming Democratic primary are expected to be black. If Obama can marshal their support, along with his other critical constituencies such as upscale whites and the young, he should win. The rub is that Hillary Clinton, thanks to her husband--famously called "the first black President" by author Toni Morrison--will likely deliver a large chunk of African-Americans to his wife. No one said it would be easy defeating the Clinton organization--is it a "machine?"--anywhere, as Obama is just now learning to his chagrin.

Not incidentally, the racial voting discussed here (a theory, not a fact, pending further research) is far from the only explanation for Hillary's upset in New Hampshire. Late deciders apparently picked her disproportionately, with single and senior women choosing Clinton massively. Perhaps it was the famous quirkiness of Granite State voters, and their desire not to simply ratify the Iowa decision. Some also believe that Clinton's anger at the Saturday debate when she was "ganged up on" by two men (Edwards and Obama), combined with her subsequent, teary-eyed confessional about how tough it was to soldier on, may have generated a wave of gender-based sympathy. (This is also just a theory, supported only by anecdotal evidence.) The Clinton organizational efforts in New Hampshire, long her firewall, were also superb and helped to generate a larger-than-expected turnout of about 530,000. This, in turn, may have upset the polls' underlying "turnout models" used to predict the results.

Finally, let's not forget the enduring affection New Hampshirites have for their "Comeback Kid" Bill Clinton. He was everywhere, and he issued hard-edged--some say petty--blasts at Obama that received saturation attention in the media. Interestingly, Democratic voters in the exit poll were asked if Bill Clinton were a White House candidate in '08, would they have voted for him or their current candidate. By a margin of 58 percent to 27 percent, Hillary Clinton's voters preferred Bill, while all other Democrats kept most of their own voters. This is not a compliment to Hillary, but it's obvious that without Bill, she would not be in a position to win the party nomination.

For the moment, it's important to let the nomination process play out. Two candidates will capture their parties' presidential nominations, but post-New Hampshire, the fairest conclusion is that there is no frontrunner in either party. The passionate supporters of various candidates will dispute this--which only proves our point. We are facing a knock-down fight, day in and day out, all the way to February 5th and maybe beyond. It's OK. The election isn't until November, so let's take the time to do it right.

There is an unfortunate tendency among the media and political observers to try to bring down the curtain before the final (or even the middle) acts. And sometimes, those acts can provide plot twists, and an unexpected ending. It is wrong to cajole presidential candidates to end their campaigns before they are ready. Every one has put years of blood, sweat, tears, and treasure into the chase, and dreams of the White House die hard. Three small states have voted. Forty-seven, including all the giants, remain to be heard from. Let's resolve to take notice of as many as possible before we begin the speculation on the possible running mates, the shape of the next senior White House staff, and the content of the inaugural addresses. Every good thing in its time, dear friends. May we all savor the year, Election Day to Election Day, convention to convention, debate to debate. Presidential contests like this one don't come around very often.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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