Next week I leave for three weeks in Asia so that my newly conditional-green-carded wife can see her kids and I can finally meet them in person. (Don't worry, the campaign will be in good hands, but more on that another day.) I've occasionally commented, but I think have never diaried, on the Presidential nomination race. I will not be posting, or probably even lurking, while in Asia, so I've realized that I'm nearing my last chance to weigh in on the Democratic races that have so roiled this site. Many other diarists have taken a whack at giving their takes on the race, so here's mine, written largely for my own amusement and to leave a lasting record of what I thought a month before the Iowa Caucus.
This diary reflects my thoughts only; it is not associated with any candidate or campaign.
Tomorrow, I'm going to give personal feelings on the race and the prospects of various Democratic Presidents; today -- emphasizing that making a prediction does not mean endorsing the outcome -- I make my predictions as to next year's results.
I say: ignore most of the current daily fluctuations in the news, with the exception of Sex on the City. Hillary will beat Romney in the general election. Here's why.
1. But first, the Republicans
The key to predicting Iowa's Republican caucus, in my opinion, is the arcane caucus rules that allow people to switch to their second-place candidate. The leaders in Iowa are Romney -- Thomas Dewey's successor as the man on the wedding cake -- and Huckabee. Romney has something like a trillion dollars to spend on the race; Huckabee, while finally getting traction, has less than several of his rivals. It's not clear how Romney loses if he takes the early contests; it's not clear that Huckabee can withstand the slamming he's going to take from the fiscal conservative and socially intolerant and scientifically literate wings of his party, let alone those who really don't want to have to explain the so-called "Fair Tax" to voters.
Now, of which of these men do you think the other candidates will be more afraid?
I expect that you will see a tacit agreement between all of the other candidates to try to knock Romney out of the race. I think that Republican insiders rightly see Romney as the most formidable candidate both in the primary and the general elections: he's got soap opera doctor good looks, incredible cash reserves, excellent corporate ties, and a complete lack of principles beyond doing whatever it takes to win. (Consider the difference in the YouTube debate between his muddled and confused reaction to the Bible question -- where he left no evidence of his Mormonism -- and his horrified reaction to being confronted with the Stars and Bars. In both cases, and in the case of playing idiot when it came to waterboarding, he's following his strategy to a T: play down Mormonism, eschew overt racism, fuzz over torture.) With Giuliani wounded and Thompson and McCain trying to light wet tinder, they know that they have to stop Romney now. Remember, they all still think they can win. Huckabee is their vehicle to stop Romney.
Unfortunately for them, and Huckabee, New Hampshire doesn't have a preference voting system. When the Iowa results come out with Huckabee trouncing Romney, buy "nomination" shares in Romney low, because it will be your last chance; he'll come back in New Hampshire, where his opponents will clonk heads like Larry, Curly, and Moe rushing towards the vacuum they think he's left. They think he won't have enough time to recover, but they're wrong: he'll give the explanation I just gave above to explain his Iowa defeat (whether or not it's true), and will use his money to stomp them, while they concentrate too much on keeping Huckabee from winning again.
Romney wins New Hampshire, wins Michigan even after McCain or Thompson drop out, loses South Carolina to Huckabee or one of the others while winning Nevada, and then, with a huge media effort, takes the lion's share of the votes on Super Tuesday. Giuliani will have been neutralized by then; it's in everyone else's interest to play up the Sex on the City scandal, and he'll have melted down before Michigan. Ron Paul will continue to get his Jesse Jacksonish percentage of the vote for a while, and if he plays nice may get his own day at the Minneapolis Convention, like Jesse did. But it will be over by February 6, at which time we'll look at the polls and rewrite history saying that everyone knew that Romney was the real frontrunner all along.
One reason this is so often gets overlooked by the media. Look at the recent history of Iowa and New Hampshire among Republicans. Iowa has failed to pick the Presidential nominess only in 1980, when George H. W. Bush (32%) narrowly defeated Ronald Reagan (30%), and 1988, when Bob Dole (37%) defeated Pat Robertson (25%) and George H. W. Bush (19%). But four of the Republican races (1976, 1984, 1992, 2004) have involved incumbents and the other two, 1996 and 2000, were close. Now look at New Hampshire: it has always predicted the winner, except in 1996 (when Pat Buchanan beat Bob Dole) and 2000, when John McCain beat George W. Bush.
Did you see the key statistic? In every Republican race since 1976 without an incumbent, a different person has won Iowa and New Hampshire. So the idea that what currently seems like a Huckabee victory in Iowa giving him momentum in New Hampshire has no historical precedent among Republicans. (And Romney is from a neighboring state, too!)
As I said, I think that -- given money and blarney and looks, and despite religion and flip-flops and palpable lack of core -- Romney is the GOP's strongest candidate. And I think that either Obama or Edwards (leaning towards Obama) would be strongest against him. Of the leading trio, Hillary would be the weakest. But she'll still beat him.
2. History of the Democratic race in Iowa and New Hampshire
Let's start here again with the recent history of Iowa and New Hampshire. The main thing I notice is that Iowa simply does not always determine the race.
- Ed Muskie (36%) over eventual nominee George McGovern (23%)
- eventual nominee Jimmy Carter (28%) over Birch Bayh (13%), 38% uncommitted
- incumbent Carter (59%) over Ted Kennedy (31%)
- eventual nominee Walter Mondale (49%) over Gary Hart (17%)
- Richard Gephardt (31%) over Paul Simon (27%) and eventual nominee Michael Dukakis (22%)
- Tom Harkin (76%); no one else above 4%
- incumbent Clinton unopposed
- eventual nominee Al Gore (63%) over Bill Bradley (37%)
- eventual nominee John Kerry (38%) over John Edwards (32%), Howard Dean (18%), and Richard Gephardt (11%)
In 1992 (favorite son) and 1996 (unopposed incumbent), Iowa didn't matter.
In 1976, 1980 (despite incumbency), 2000, and 2004, Iowa predicted and strengthened the nominee.
In 1972 and 1988, Iowa failed to predict the nominee.
In 1984, Iowa mattered by strengthening the distant second-place finisher to the point of almost being able to knock off the consensus presumptive nominee.
New Hampshire has done a better job since 1976, with Walter Mondale (1984, versus Gary Hart) and Bill Clinton (1992, just after a major sex scandal erupted, versus Paul Tsongas) being the only eventual Democratic nominees to lose the primary.
The losses are especially instructive here. Bill Clinton is the only candidate since 1976 to win the nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire, but in that year at least Iowa and arguably New Hampshire were rendered less relevant by the candidacies of favorite sons. What the examples of Mondale and Clinton (and Dole and Bush) show is that even a major loss in New Hampshire makes it hard to derail a candidate with major institutional advantages in party support (and, particularly in Bill Clinton's case, unusual talent as a campaigner.)
3. Handicapping the Democratic Race
No one but the Big Three has a chance anymore, barring a Giuliani-like meltdown by Hillary and one of the others, but the possibility of such a meltdown will keep everyone in the race through New Hampshire. (Kucinich and Gravel may stay in forever, but will get neither coverage nor delegates.) Here, the strategic reasons for ganging up on Romney don't apply; while Hillary is the front-runner, there are two people comparably well-placed to beat her, and each is the other's biggest rival to take on the "Anyone But Clinton" mantle. So Obama can't send his Edwards his second-place support, Edwards can't send his to Obama, Richardson will send his to Hillary, Dodd and Biden will have nothing to give, and Kucinich won't send his anywhere this time.
I'm not sure who wins Iowa; I tend to think it will be Obama, but I don't have much confidence. As with the Republican race, I don't think it will much matter. If Hillary wins, and especially if Obama and Edwards are so close that Edwards doesn't drop out, then Hillary wins New Hampshire, Nevada, and Florida. (If Obama and Edwards are still in the race, I think that their supporters vote strategically for either Dodd or uncommitted. I'd like to predict that Hillary unexpectedly loses Michigan, because it would be so counterintuitive, but I don't think it will happen. Maybe she loses South Carolina to whichever of Obama and Edwards is still standing.) If she leads going into Super Tuesday, she ends that day as the presumptive nominee.
Edwards will have trouble in New Hampshire even if he wins Iowa, unless perhaps Obama does so unexpectedly poorly that he can't muster support in the first primary. Unlike Kerry in 2004, Edwards does not have the support of the party leadership as an acceptable choice this time -- given his Deanesque populist and liberal leanings -- and it's not likely that people will close ranks around him. If Obama remains competitive in the race beyond New Hampshire, catching fire becomes extremely difficult. He's still capable of it, but he needs a surprise powerful showing comparable to Kerry's in 2004, one that knocks Obama out. And this year he seems more like the Gephardt than the Kerry of 2004.
Obama's best case is to win handily enough that Edwards drops out before New Hampshire -- which I don't see Edwards doing easily. But say that it happens. We then have a very interesting mano-a-mano, as everyone but Kucinich (and maybe Gravel) drops out. Like Romney, if she places even third in Iowa and a fairly distant second in New Hampshire, Hillary simply cannot be driven out of the race other than by scandal. She has too much money and too much institutional advantage. If Hillary wins New Hampshire, the analysis proceeds as above. If she loses, she then wins Michigan, Florida, and Nevada; maybe Obama wins South Carolina. None of this much matters so long as Obama stays viable, and with Edwards probably out, he will. Super Tuesday then becomes one of the truly most interesting days in recent politics. Obama could be in control after that day, but that's not the way to bet.
Here are the primaries and caucuses with the numbers of the 2064 total delegates at stake in each:
New Jersey 127
New York 280
Rhode Island 32
Utah primary 29
New Mexico 38
North Dakota 21
(Daunting to look at it that way, isn't it?)
I see four stories coming out of Super Tuesday: California, Georgia, Illinois, and the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut/Rhode Island
Massachusetts regional primary. The first and last are the most important by far, and that is where I'd expect Hillary to have the greatest advantage. Her husband is very popular in California, and the Northeast is her base.
Here's the problem for Obama: the pressure will be on from the party leadership and the institutional press to wrap things up. They know that they can't push Hillary out of the race; she has the insane Clintonian hunger that kept her husband alive after Gennifer Flowers bloomed in the winter of 1992. If he's leading going into Super Tuesday, he may have to take 60-65% of the delegates to Hillary's 35-40% before she and those supporting her grudgingly give way. But if she beats him 53-47, or certainly 55-45, the pressure us going to be strong to coalesce behind her. That's the advantage of having the institutional party, and the uncommitted superdelegates, largely behind one. Tie goes to the incumbent, and within the Democratic Party that's essentially what Hillary is.
When you look ahead past Super Tuesday, I see a lot of reasons for Hillary to stay in the race.
February 9 Louisiana primary 68
February 9 Nebraska caucus 31
February 9 Washington caucus 97
February 10 Maine caucus 34
February 12 DC primary 37
February 12 Maryland primary 99
February 12 Virginia primary 103
February 19 Wisconsin primary 92
February 26 Hawaii primary 29
March ... Dems Abroad and territories 37
March 4 Massachusetts primary 121
March 4 Ohio primary 161
March 4 Vermont primary 23
March 4 Texas primary 228
March 8 Wyoming caucus 18
March 11 Mississippi primary 36
April 22 Pennsylvania primary 179 or 181
May 6 Indiana primary 79
May 6 North Carolina primary 110
May 13 West Virginia primary 37
May 20 Kentucky primary 55
May 20 Oregon primary 79
June 1 Puerto Rico primary 58
June 3 Montana primary 23
June 3 South Dakota primary 22
I'd expect her to do better in Louisiana, Obama in Washington, but I expect her to do well in Maryland and Virginia on the 12. Then the big ones are Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. If it comes down a true Ford versus Reagan hunt for every last delegate, who do we think is going to have the advantage? I think it's likely going to be the candidate allied with the President who not that long ago controlled the party and has the connections to win ugly in the above states. Obama may have more popular support, but I don't think he'll have an arm-twisting organization anywhere near what the Clintons can assemble.
If Hillary looks at that list above and thinks she can make up any gap that may exist after Super Tuesday, I think we're in for a long and bloody campaign, ultimately largely decided by superdelegates. Obama will have the intellectuals, Oprah, and most of the NYT Editorial page, but I don't think he'll have what both of the Clintons have: the desperate, single-minded dedication to win at any cost. I do think he has the fire in his belly; but I think that Hillary and Bill have an entire blast furnace in theirs, and when it comes down to backroom politics that would decide the day, I'll take the chances of an LBJ over an Adlai Stevenson.
Obama's chances, then, depend on getting Edwards out immediately and then a win on Super Tuesday so decisive that Hillary doesn't think she can make up the gap, even with superdelegates. Possible, but not the way to bet.
4. The General Election
Why will Hillary beat Romney? Remember Clinton fatigue? Meet Clinton-bashing fatigue.
Obama and Edwards and the rest have made Hillary a better politician in the past few months. Not great -- far too cautious, far too scripted -- but better. (This refers only to her abilities, not her policies.) She is still capable of a howling lapse in judgment of the sort I've long expected would sink her -- remember her lapsing into black vernacular in that Church, something I'd be loathe to try to defend? -- but it's looking less likely. And once Democrats are reconciled in her candidacy, I think most of us will welcome the comparative sanity of a Clinton Restoration.
Romney, on the other hand, has become a worse politician over the past months. He's been pushed too far to the right, and he's shown that he can be easily rattled. He'll try to tack left and he'll end up looking like Kerry. In fact, my question for the Clintons is: any shots of Romney windsurfing?
It'll be tough -- but we'll win.
Update: Take the poll!