The 7-10 has returned after a long, restful, festive (and stomach-bursting) Thanksgiving.
Last week was a particularly slow one for political news, but there were a few good stories worth commenting on. The Scott McClellan story shined a whole new light on the Valerie Plame saga, for example, but I will write about that at a later date.
But for now, I want to talk about last week's ABC News/Washington Post poll that showed Barack Obama ahead of Hillary Clinton in Iowa. Obama polled at 30%, Clinton polled at 26%, and Edwards polled at 22%. This was the first time in about two months that Obama has polled higher than Clinton in Iowa.
Why is this important? For starters, positioning is never as important as momentum. Hillary Clinton had been trouncing her opponents in almost every poll this year (especially after Edwards began to fade in Iowa). However, it doesn't really mean much to win in September if you trend downward in December. Voters want to support candidates who have momentum. Momentum creates a bandwagon effect. It changes the media storyline and gives you free favorable press coverage. Mike Huckabee has momentum. Stories about him auditioning for vice president have been replaced with stories about how he could snatch an Iowa victory away from Mitt Romney. Ron Paul has momentum. Stories about him have changed from being the out-of-place antiwar GOP whipping boy on the stage in the debates to being the guy who shattered single-day fundraising records.
And for now, Barack Obama has momentum. How much talk do you hear now about him being too reticent to throw a punch? And what about Hillary Clinton? How much talk do you hear now about her "inevitability?" Polling data such as those I cited earlier have totally reframed this contest. Yes, Hillary Clinton is still trouncing the rest of the Democratic field nationally and in other state polls, but nobody is talking about that now. The only thing people hear is that "there's a real race in Iowa and that Clinton could potentially lose the whole thing."
A second reason why this matters is because this makes Obama seem more credible in the eyes of voters. On anecdotal evidence alone, I can tell you that there are a lot of voters out there who "like Obama, but don't think he can win." These doubts could be a realization of the fact that Clinton is much more politically savvy than him. They could be a lamentation of the notion that America is "not ready" for a Black president just yet. They could be worries stemming from his lack of executive experience and his short tenure in Washington. But whatever the source of these doubts may be, seeing Obama on top of the polls surely makes some of these voters challenge the doubts they had about his candidacy and may make them more likely to support him more enthusiastically and be more confident about his chances. And that often translates into increased fundraising.
The poll's internal data show further evidence that Obama may be surging at the right time. Among likely Democratic voters in Iowa, 55% say they are seeking "new ideas" while 33% say they are seeking "experience." Back in July, "new ideas" was only trumping "experience" 49%-39%. Obama has obviously been running as the "new ideas" candidate who frequently talks about "a different kind of politics." Clinton has obviously been the "experience" candidate who can "take on the Republican machine." The widening of this gap between "new ideas" and "experience" suggests that Obama's message is beginning to resonate.
Secondly, Obama is seen as more "honest and trustworthy" than Clinton by a 2:1 ratio (31%-15%). He is also seen as more "willing to speak his/her mind" than Clinton by a 3:2 ratio (76%-50%). Even John Edwards outperformed Clinton on these two issues. It seems that Clinton's widely panned debate performance in Philadelphia has wounded her. The driver's license question followed by all the excuse-making ("politics of pile-on") and gender-baiting ("the all boys club of presidential politics") and position-shifting (before finally settling on a "no") all likely fed into these negative perceptions about her, at least when compared to Obama. To be fair, Obama's mangled response to the very same debate question should have wounded him similarly, but he was able to change the subject more adeptly.
So what does this mean for the rest of the field? Since there are only about six weeks before the Iowa caucuses, it's becoming a bit easier to make predictions about who will make it to New Hampshire. In presidential politics, there are generally only three tickets out of Iowa. (The winner flies first-class, the runner-up flies coach, and the third place finisher takes Greyhound.) The presidential race post-Iowa is a whole different beast because the field is winnowed down to a manageable three or four candidates. The presidential debates become more important then, as there are fewer candidates on stage to prevent someone from breaking out. And that's why every Democrat not named Clinton should be encouraged by Obama's rise in the polls.
I had already written about why the second-tier candidates need Obama about a month and a half ago. But in light of recent polling data and more debates under our belts, now it's time to update that analysis and provide a few more predictions:
The three tickets out of Iowa will go to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the winner of the Bill Richardson/Joe Biden/Chris Dodd race.
Hillary Clinton has enough money, name recognition, and campaign staff to survive a defeat in Iowa. If she wins Iowa, the only way she will lose the nomination is if she is afflicted by some unforeseen scandal or if she commits a grave unforced error. Of all the Democratic candidates, she is clearly the one with the most room for error as far as Iowa is concerned. And the longer the field remains large, the more she benefits from it.
Barack Obama has enough money and supporters to survive a defeat in Iowa, but he is much less able to survive such a defeat than Clinton. He is the single most important candidate in the field right now because he is what's keeping the ABH (Anybody But Hillary) candidates alive. Should Obama win Iowa, look for John Edwards to drop out and endorse him. And even if Clinton were to win Iowa, an Edwards endorsement might give Obama the buzz and firepower he needs to stop Clinton.
If John Edwards does not win Iowa or does not finish ahead of Obama, he is finished. Second place might be good enough for Clinton, Obama, or any other candidate, but it is not good enough for him. And even if he wins Iowa, he will not dislodge his main rivals (Obama and Clinton) from the race because they simply have too much money. Obama is a particularly thorny problem for Edwards because they both are running as youthful outsider candidates who want to change the system. Edwards is also making a conscious effort not to rip into Obama the way he is ripping into Clinton. After all, how can you criticize a rival when that rival is running on your same message? (The message is "change," by the way.) So it seems like he is politically trapped. And for this reason, I don't think Edwards will win one of the three tickets out of Iowa, even if he finishes in the top three.
If Bill Richardson does not place at least third in Iowa, he is finished. More specifically, this means he needs to defeat either Clinton, Obama, or Edwards. If Richardson places fourth behind all of these candidates, he is finished even if Edwards subsequently drops out. On the flip side, it is possible that one or more of these candidates will falter in the final weeks, so Richardson could potentially place second or even win Iowa. However, if Biden or Dodd place ahead of him, he is finished. Regarding Edwards and Obama, there's only enough room for one "change" candidate in the field. Regarding Richardson, Biden, and Dodd, there's only enough room for one "veteran statesman" in the field.
Joe Biden has said he only needs to place fourth in Iowa to remain viable. That seems to be an attempt to lower expectations. He is running fifth or sixth in most Iowa polls now even though he has picked up more Iowa endorsements than all the candidates except for Clinton and Obama. If fifth or sixth is where Biden ends up in Iowa, then he is finished. However, he seems better able to defeat Richardson because of his stronger debating skills, so fourth place is not out of the question. And if Edwards drops out, then Biden would essentially be the "third" and final Democrat left in the race.
Chris Dodd has not said much about his expectations, but if he does not beat either Richardson or Biden in Iowa, he is finished. Dodd's main advantage and disadvantage is that he is perhaps the least known of the "second-tier" candidates. This is good in that people aren't criticizing him for his weak debate performances like they are with Bill Richardson. But on the other hand, people aren't buzzing about him the way they often buzz about Joe Biden's debate performances. Dodd is essentially the invisible candidate. Perhaps his ground game in Iowa is much stronger than it appears, so it's rather difficult to accurately gauge Dodd's strength. Will Dodd surprise us all? Or is he already a dead man walking?
Dennis Kucinich is already finished, but even with a defeat in Iowa, he will not end his campaign as long as the war in Iraq is still being prosecuted. Dennis Kucinich '08 reminds me of Jesse Jackson '88 in that both candidates are running to promote a cause and remain in the nomination race long after it becomes obvious that they will not win. Perhaps the eventual Democratic nominee will integrate parts of Kucinich's platform into their eventual general election strategy. This prospect should please antiwar liberals and seems to be the closest he can come to getting on the national stage.
As for the Republicans, at first glance, it seems like New Hampshire will be more important than Iowa simply because the field is currently in such disarray. However, they will have their You Tube debate in a few days. After that debate, I will analyze their state of affairs and flesh out what Iowa means for them.
The 7-10 has returned after a long, restful, festive (and stomach-bursting) Thanksgiving.