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Jan 02 2008

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Considering Iowa

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No less of an authority than Danish Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr neatly summed up the quandary for pollsters, pundits and campaigns as we come down to the last 24 hours before Iowa votes:

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”

With both Parties locked in tight races, almost any prediction can be valid today. But before putting in my two cents, it’s worth looking at the candidates’ performance over the past year for clues about the results in Iowa and the states to follow.

The Democrats:

Hillary Clinton:  “Take My Word For It” – It started as the most formidable campaign of 2008, potentially years in the making and with every material advantage in resources and personnel. And for much of the year, the story line played out as planned as well.  But the “Ready on Day #1” theme has boomeranged.

Despite having been elected to the Senate twice in her own right, Mrs. Clinton’s ”experience” argument has relied, too heavily on her husband’s administration and his accomplishments.  This raises the unintended specter of assessing Mrs. Clinton through her unique and otherwise undocumented role as First Lady, which opens up an entirely different line of questioning, none of it helpful to her candidacy.

The Hillary people seem to have recognized this problem, which is why they rolled out Bill in the closing days leading up to the Caucuses to talk up his personal knowledge of her qualifications.  But even this is a risky play.

First, the more the former President talks up Mrs. Clinton, the less independent and strong she seems in comparison. Said another way, the experience argument withers in direct proportion to Bill’s impassioned testimonials.  In addition, as voters assess Hillary’s undefined White House years, they must also consider the unique dynamics of a First Gentleman who is a former President of the United States.

From the beginning, the Clinton campaign has had to balance the public’s innate distrust of Hillary against a generally positive public view of Mrs. Clinton as a leader. In relying on the White House years as her most expressed experience, the campaign may have undermined the strength of her candidacy.

As an aside, for those GOP veterans of 1992, rich irony can be found in Bill Clinton’s valuation of experience as an indispensable requirement for the presidency, arguing against a national newcomer in his 40s who promises change.  And as we remember, the change argument won out, big time.

Barack Obama:  “Change vs. Risk” – He wrestled the “change agent” mantle from Clinton and Edwards on the Democratic side. Luck or fate would have him basing his campaign on a different kind of politics of inclusion at a time when voter sourness and cynicism is at an all time high. He beat the Clinton money machine on fund raising and closed the gap in the polls that seemed stuck with Clinton on top for most of the year.  He is cerebral, charismatic and thoughtful.

He is also a giant risk.

America hasn’t elected a Senator to the presidency since 1960, and with less than three years in office, Obama would be the least experienced president on the national stage since Jimmy Carter, a candidate whose resume in 1975 was eerily similar to Obama’s.

There is also no getting around the tricky and unpredictable nature of Obama’s race in an election year that is otherwise shaping up as the best for the Democrats since 1992.  A vote for Obama is vote on faith and conviction. If he wins, he transforms American politics as an African American who can win a state that is 99% white.

John Edwards “The Angry Hypocrite” – Edwards suffers from a glaring authenticity gap that is only drowned out by his high decibel rhetoric. His  sunny optimism of 2004 has morphed into a snarling and cynical doctrine of class warfare, serving up simplistic villains and unrealistic solutions.

But even that message might be convincing to voters if the messenger had credibility.  The gap and contradictions  between Edwards’ life experience, including his political record in the Senate, and his toxic rants would be laughable if he weren’t actually in the top three for the Democratic nomination. He is the dark side of Obama’s change argument, benefiting from voter disenchantment and his previous run in ’04.

The Others “Adult Supervision” – It must be hard being Joe Biden or Chris Dodd, or Bill Richardson for that matter, with Democratic voters placing celebrity above experience in ’08.  If you took away the names of the candidates and offered only resumes, all three would be the standouts on the Democratic side.

While ’08 may not be their year, the eventual Democratic nominee would be foolish not to look to Biden as a vice presidential candidate. Less so with Richardson, who did not live up to advance billing.

The GOP

Mitt Romney “Central Casting” – Ronald Reagan was an actor who became President. Mitt Romney is a candidate who acts like a president trying to become President. The distinction is significant.

Romney can be credited with bringing the successful business principles that made him rich and saved the Olympics to a presidential campaign. A long shot, one-term governor at the beginning, he laid down a credible, if unoriginal, game plan to take the nomination; win Iowa and New Hampshire and use the momentum to run the table for the rest of the primaries. Through persistence and organization he has become a strong player in the early states.

But Romney has structural problems that can’t be solved by an organizational chart. He pitches himself as the genuine candidate of conservative principles, but truth or not, his conversion to those principles has been conveniently timed with his run for president. Further, Romney faces challenges with his faith in the same manner that Obama does on race. In this regard, it is instructive that

Romney’s biggest challenge in Iowa is not from a top tier candidate but from an unknown former Baptist Minister and governor of Arkansas.  That says all you need to know about how evangelicals see Mormonism.

Rudy Giuliani “In Need of 911” – An unconventional Republican candidate chose an unconventional strategy to win the nomination.

Sit out the early contests and roll with the big primaries in states, rich in delegates and with a larger pool of moderate voters. Campaign on the conservative parts of your record — crime fighting and tax reduction. Don’t flip-flop on social issues, but find vehicles to calm conservative voters such as a commitment to appoint “strict constructionalist” judges.  Above all, stress leadership, encapsulated on 9-11 and the days that followed.

And for the longest time the strategy worked, much to the surprise of pundits who found a successful Giuliani candidacy impossible. How could a pro-choice, gay rights-supporting candidate who once dressed in drag win the Republican nomination? Yet, the money and endorsements flowed and values voters seemed to put aside their doubts in favor of a candidate who was strong on terrorism and national security.

And further, during a year when Hillary Clinton dominated the Democratic polls, Giuliani took the unorthodox step of campaigning against the Democratic front runner before a vote had been counted, ostensibly to demonstrate his zest and ability to best Hillary and  prevent the Clinton restoration.

With Iowa hours away and New Hampshire just days after, the unconventional strategy of waiting until February 5th to compete seems less brilliant, if still necessary given Giuliani’s strengths and weaknesses. If no single candidate emerges from the pre February 5th  contests, Giuliani may yet have the last laugh.

It is worth pointing out that Giuliani’s recent slide in the polls can be tracked to Clinton’s slippage on the Democrat side, perhaps indicating a symbiotic relationship between the two among Republican voters where Rudy may need Hillary to win over her Party for him to do so as well.

John McCain “Polls Don’t Measure Integrity” – McCain is in many ways a modern day Job. Heir to a family naval tradition that is cemented in American history, he spent six years in a Vietnamese POW camp, embodying character and integrity. He moved fast in politics, from a congressman to a Senator, but his early political career was marked by the corruption investigation of the “Keating Five”.  And riding high after an 18 point win in New Hampshire in 2000, McCain saw the nomination wrestled away in bear knuckle politics shortly thereafter.

In 2007 McCain started as the odds on front runner for ‘08, attracting talent and cash, only to have the campaign implode under its own weight. Moreover, McCain refused to renege on what he believed were principled positions on the War in Iraq and immigration reform, alienating independents, and conservative Republicans who already had doubts about him.

He was given up for dead by the political class.

But the collapse of the campaign was a gift to McCain, who was back to straight talk on a shoe string budget, much as he had been in 2000. Moreover, his refusal to pander on Iraq was rewarded when the “Surge of 07”, a variation of a McCain advocated strategy dating to ’05, defied expectation and achieved positive results.

A validated McCain has continued to campaign in relative obscurity, while the lead in early states and nationally has slipped from one candidate to another.  Now, a mixture of events and timing has brought him back into race as a genuine contender. He’s gaining on Romney in NH and despite his opposition to ethanol subsidies and small footprint in Iowa, he’s current running 3rd or 4th in most polls. Amazing.  Further, according to Rasmussen, McCain is the only candidate in either Party who is trusted by a majority of Americans (53%), a hopeful development for his campaign.

The Others “A Lil’ Bit of This & a Lil’ Bit of That” – The improbable Huckabee boomlet was already showing signs of wear and tear before his Perot-like behavior this past week. He may win Iowa, but that win would say more about Romney’s religion than it would about Huckabee’s seriousness as a candidate. Even if he wins in Iowa, the path forward for him is anything but clear.  His role will be spoiler for other candidates.

Fred Thompson turned out to be the loaf that wouldn’t rise. Advertised as the great conservative hope for the Party, it was never entirely clear that Thompson himself was invested in the presidency. He may yet surprise in Iowa, but his legacy from 2007 is one of missed opportunity and underwhelming performance.

Ron Paul was the sleeper. Never a serious candidate, Paul has legions of uber-dedicated volunteers whose enthusiasm and creativity other campaigns can only view with envy.  With a newly fat bank account from a fund raising operation that he didn’t control or instigate, Paul’s libertarian streak could be a minor factor in New Hampshire, proud of its independent thinking. He’s a bigger unknown as a potential  3rd party candidate who would attract anti-war Republican and Democrats.

The Iowa Picks:

With the disclaimer that Caucuses are notoriously difficult to predict:

  1. Turnout is everything.
  2. Democratic turnout will be higher than Republican turn out, illustrating GOP dissatisfaction with their candidate choices and Democratic enthusiasm for theirs.
  3. High turnout on the Democratic side will favor Obama.  Low turnout, Edwards.  Clinton wins if its in between.
  4. That said, I think Obama’s message of optimistic change will beat out Clinton’s experience and Edwards’ angry populism.
  5. On the Republican side, organization will beat out spiritual fervor and Romney will win over Huckabee, but not convincingly given his investment in the state.  If the churches turn out and overwhelm Romney, he’s in trouble.
  6. There will be at least one major surprise by a second tier candidate in either Party to do much better than expected.

Happy hunting!

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