Friday, January 04, 2008

An historic night of winners and losers

I’ll assess the stunning results of the Iowa caucuses through the prism of winners and losers – some of them obvious, others less so.


Barack Obama. He made history last night, as the first African-American presidential candidate to demonstrate serious crossover appeal in the gatekeeper state. Jesse Jackson, during the ‘80s, never got more than 8.8 percent of the Iowa tally, whereas Obama took 38 percent – in a state that’s two percent black. His candidacy is now strengthened for the long haul; a lot of black Democrats in the early-voting, racially diverse states – such as Florida and South Carolina – may have been holding back from Obama, waiting to see whether white voters would actually step up and back a black guy who’s barely three years out of the Illinois legislature. It happened, and the Democratic race has been transformed overnight. He’s the “change” candidate unless and until somebody else swipes the label. That won’t be easy, because now he looks like the leader of a burgeoning movement, and that’s catnip for independents and non-establishment Democrats who have long yearned to shake things up.

Mike Huckabee. Although he was outspent 20-1 by his closest Republican rival, he demonstrated that passion is more important than money. The passion was supplied by Iowa’s conservative Christians, who comprised an astounding 60 percent of the GOP turnout (the usual figure is closer to 40 percent), and who judged Huckabee to be the most authentic candidate in a field of flip-floppers and panderers. These voters weren’t even concerned about electability; according to NBC’s survey last night, only eight percent listed “best chance to win” as their top candidate criterion. As a result, the Republicans have a Christian fundamentalist in the top tier for the first time ever. Huckabee probably can’t take New Hampshire, but his decisive Iowa win puts him in play in South Carolina later this month, not simply because the religious right is strong there, but because his populist anti-Wall Street pitch might attract blue-collar Republicans. A lot of big-business Republicans are horrified by Huckabee; the question is, can they agree on an alternative?

The Des Moines Register. On New Year’s Eve, the newspaper’s pollster predicted that Obama would win by eight points, buoyed by a record-high Democratic turnout. Well, Obama won by eight points, buoyed by a record-high Democratic turnout. As I mentioned the other day, it’s probably wise to respect the folks who have the home-field advantage.

John McCain. He’s a winner not because he finished in a virtual third-place tie despite his inattention to Iowa, but because he stands to benefit elsewhere from Huckabee’s resounding victory. Huckabee did him a big favor by bloodying Mitt Romney, who is McCain’s chief rival in New Hampshire. McCain needs to win that state next Tuesday in order to stay viable, and he needs to attract independent voters – a potentially challenging task, because independents (who can vote in either primary) might want to jump on the Obama bandwagon. Still, McCain has the luxury of dueling with a Republican rival who now looks like a loser. Which reminds me…


Mitt Romney. The guy was downright humiliated. GOP voters took a long look, they smelled a phony, and they made him pay. All those flip-flops, all the stuff he simply made up, all the negative ads he ran on TV…he came off like a typical politician, which is a deadly image at a time when the grassroots in both parties seem anxious for something completely different. One of his flacks tried to spin his nine-point loss last night by saying that evangelical voters unsurprisingly flocked to the evangelical candidate; the flaw in the spin is that Romney spent 2007 trying to woo those voters, and wound up driving them away. Now he’s heading for New Hampshire, where his incessant attack ads against McCain risk driving Granite State voters away. Stung by Iowa, he has to win New Hampshire or risk going into freefall as a fresh example of that Beatles adage about how money can’t buy you love.

John Edwards. It’s hard to see how he gets any traction from losing Iowa, where he had virtually camped himself for the past several years. He needed a win in order to draw the free media coverage that would in turn draw the Democratic donors who thus far have spurned him. It won’t happen. Now the race moves to New Hampshire, where he was weak in 2004, and is not significantly stronger now. He’ll stay in for awhile, particularly since he has a lot of labor union support in Nevada, which holds caucuses on Jan. 19. It’s hard to see how he can go the distance.

Rudy Giuliani. Sure, he opted not to campaign much in Iowa (because he sensed he was dead meat there), but still, it must be embarrassing for the self-marketed 9/11 leader to find himself in sixth place…behind Ron Paul. In fact, Ron Paul’s tally was nearly triple the Rudy tally. That same thing could well happen next week in New Hampshire, another state that Rudy has skipped. It remains to be seen whether he can play Rip Van Winkle, wake up in his chosen battleground (Florida, Jan. 29), and still have any claim to the top tier. Of course, with the GOP race in such flux, it’s hard to know who else will be in it, either.

And, saving the biggest loser for last, Hillary Clinton. What a disastrous night. She even lost to Obama among women. When the smoke cleared, her flack offered a pathetic piece of spin about the Iowa results: "Extrapolating from 230,000 people is a mistake." Naturally, if Hillary had finished first, the same flack would have raved about how extrapolating from 230,000 people was a triumph of the democratic process.

Hillary had intended to make Iowa a pit stop on the road to coronation, but she leaves Iowa affixed with the establishment candidate label. In her gracious concession speech, she said it was “a great night for Democrats” because the record-high turnout was stoked by the message of “change.” The problem is, Obama successfully laid claim to that word. The real message last night, particularly if Edwards’ tally is added to Obama’s, was that grassroots Democrats – and the independents who participated – are anxious to leave the Clinton years behind, not to resurrect them. The Iowans served notice that the Clintons can indeed be beaten.

Granted, Hillary has the money and moxie to battle Obama to the bitter end, and it should be noted that several past candidates (Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush) have lost Iowa but won the White House. The problem is, the Obama challenge is historically unique, and she risks being subsumed by forces beyond her control. If his Iowa momentum gains velocity in New Hampshire, even the Clintons could be hard pressed to stop it. Barring a comeback, she could well find herself quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th-century essayist, who wrote: “Events are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”


I am saving my (presumably) weighter thoughts - particularly about the most fluid GOP race since 1940 - for a Sunday print column.