Monday, January 21, 2008

Deep Breath Time

If the 2008 race for the Democratic nomination has taught us anything, it's that the conventional wisdom is always wrong. Right? Actually, no.

It's easy to over-analyze the race for the Democratic nomination. Despite all of the media bloviating about who's up, who's down, Hillary's crying, Bill's venting, Barack's hoping, etc. etc., in many ways the race is playing out pretty much in line with the basic fundamentals of presidential nominations. Those fundamentals state that the best known and best funded candidates usually win the nomination. That's why the conventional wisdom going into the Iowa caucuses had Hillary Clinton as the clear front-runner, with lots of support among both party activists and rank and file Democrats who remembered the Clinton years with fondness. Barack Obama, on the other hand, had great success in fundraising but hadn't managed to gain much traction with voters. Finally, John Edwards had a strong base in Iowa, but lacked the resources to compete elsewhere.

That's pretty much how things look today, though it seems as though the race has been much more fluid and dynamic than it probably has been. The key factor here was Obama's Iowa win. In its aftermath, the press built it up into an event of world historical significance and described Obama as the second coming of FDR and MLK. When he failed to then win New Hampshire, it looked like things were on a roller-coaster. Had it not been for Iowa, the race would look as predictable as it seemed a few months ago.

Obama's Iowa victory was an upset, but it's easy to overstate its importance. Exit polls indicate that he got 35 percent of the vote, just enough to win in a competitive three-way race. Furthermore, he ran best in the eastern part of Iowa, the portion of the state bordering his home state of Illinois and where voters were probably more familiar with him. In New Hampshire, he was less well known and, most importantly, John Edwards failed to siphon off as many votes from Clinton as he did in Iowa. The result there was more the status quo reasserting itself than it was a miraculous Clinton recovery from political near death.

The press, of course, has a huge investment in making the race look like a roller coaster ride. Drama, uncertainty, and conflict make for good journalism and punditry far more than the inevitable playing out of impersonal structural forces.

This analysis also suggests that race is, perhaps, less important than it seems. I'm not one to dismiss the idea that Obama's race may matter. As I said earlier posts, he can't seem to break out of a ceiling of approximately 35 percent among whites, and race may well have something to do with that. But it also important to remember that Obama is a relative unknown (how many Democratic primary voters knew the name Barack Obama a year ago?) and he's running against someone who's been a national political figure for over 15 years, is regarded as an icon among many in the key Democratic constituency of professional women, and is the wife of the only Democrat to win two presidential elections since FDR. Those factors probably have more to do with the course of the Democratic race than anything else.


Chris D. said...

I think it was Larry Sabato who pointed it out in 2000 that any candidate with a serious shot at his or her party's nomination will have difinitively led in the national polls of likely primary voters at some point in the year prior to the Iowa caucuses. I can't say for sure, but I think Clinton lead the national polls throughout that entire period. Her biggest threat was a hypothetical run by Gore. Obama only led briefly in the week after Iowa.

Chris M. said...

Hi Phil,

Turnout (except in Las Vegas) has been much higher than expected, so everything hasn't been called perfectly. Anyway, I must admit that I am a pretty ardent Obama fan and the idea of an "Obama Ceiling" does have me worried. That said, the Clintons have played some pretty significant political cards recently, so they are worried too.

I'm not sure how negative campaigning will play out. Internet fund raising has been a big boost for Obama and the Clinton's latest tactics have a lot of Kossaks riled. I'm not sure if the Clintons, in all their wisdom, have run through the ramifications of this. Never underestimate the ability of DC insiders to underestimate technology.