Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Is this a great country, or what?

Harry Truman is probably still safe in the rankings as America’s most renowned comeback kid – his brandishing of that Dewey Beats Truman headline is iconic – but Hillary Clinton has now surprised just about everybody. Not merely the pollsters and the media (and me, yesterday's parenthetical caveat notwithstanding), but also the tea-leaf readers in her own campaign who had foreseen disaster in their internal polling of the New Hampshire electorate. As one Hillary friend reportedly confided late last night, "I was with them all day. They did not see this coming. No one did."

Hillary this morning may well be thinking: Is this a great country, or what? In the land of opportunity, she just transformed herself from a downbeat blues singer ("Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out") to Rocky. Here’s what apparently happened:

1. New Hampshire voters, contrarian by nature, essentially said: “Hold on, not so fast. This Democratic race should not be brought to an end already. We think it has barely begun.” Indeed, MSNBC conducted a pre-election focus group with professional Democratic women (a key demographic), and those voters said they were not happy with the notion of ratifying Barack Obama and thus terminating the Democratic race so quickly.

2. Today, there will be lots of commentary about how virtually all the polls were wrong. I think it’s possible that the weekend polls indicating a decisive Obama victory were actually right – as mere momentary snapshots – but that a fair number of voters pulled back at the eleventh hour, perhaps turned off by the saturation coverage, perhaps feeling that Granite Staters were being told how to vote, and perhaps (in the case of some independents) feeling that since Obama apparently had things well in hand, they should instead participate in the Republican primary and help their old favorite, John McCain. It's worth noting that 17 percent of the Democratic primary voters made up their minds on the final day, and that those people favored Hillary over Obama by three points.

3. Hillary managed to sow some doubt about her chief rival, persuading some voters that perhaps they did not know enough about Obama to warrant falling in love with him. She scored points at the Saturday night debate by pointing out a few arguably substantive flaws in Obama’s Senate voting record. She even played the 9/11 card, intimating at the eleventh hour that the terrorists might be most tempted to test an inexperienced American leader, just as they recently tested the new British prime minister, Gordon Brown (wait, isn't the 9/11 card supposed to be a Republican talking point?). And in the final days she repeatedly assailed Obama’s health care plan, pointing out that it does not require that all Americans be covered – an important issue for older Democratic women.

4. Speaking of women...she got them back, after losing them to Obama in Iowa. Fifty seven percent of the New Hampshire Democratic voters were women, according to the exit polls, and they broke for Hillary over Obama by 13 percentage points. This suggests that Hillary had a great ground game run by smart local operatives. And the smartest Democratic operative in New Hampshire is Jean Shaheen, the former governor and once and future Senate candidate. Shaheen, a major Hillary player, may have helped saved the day.

5. This point is entirely speculative and very sensitive: Did Obama's race cost him some votes? Unlike in Iowa, the voters in New Hampshire had the luxury of privacy behind a curtain. It's virtually impossible to know the answer, but it's worth nothing that, in the past, several black Democrats went down to defeat in high-profile elections even when strongly favored to win, most notably Tom Bradley in the 1982 California gubernatorial tilt.

6. I'm more confident about this one: Whereas the Iowa caucus participants may have felt that Hillary was behaving like an entitled royal on route to her coronation, and rejected her accordingly, the New Hampshire voters may have warmed to Hillary because they sensed she had been rendered human. Witness her deft handling, during the Saturday night debate, of the charge that she wasn’t likeable (with wry wit: “That hurts my feelings. But I’ll try to go on”); and her quavering voice and wet eyes during a campaign appearance on Monday. Stripped of her aura of entitlement and “inevitability,” she thus was deemed deserving of a second chance. (It's amazing to think that Hillary strategist Mark Penn was supposedly in danger of losing his job...only to be saved in the end by Hillary's tear ducts.)

Voters in both Democratic contests have offered second chances. When Iowans sensed a Hillary coronation, they said, “Not so fast.” When the folks in New Hampshire sensed a runaway Obama bandwagon, they said, “Not so fast.” Now it’s on to Nevada (where a key union, the culinary workers, has just endorsed Obama), South Carolina, and beyond.

A woman, a black, and a southern white guy, all dueling on the theme of change versus experience in a race that’s writing its own rules. Forty eight states owe Iowa and New Hampshire a debt of gratitude for keeping the party going.


UPDATE...The directors of the Marist Poll just sent out their own ruminations on what happened. Its conclusions lend some credence to items 2 and 6 above. The Marist email says, "If the pollsters and media pundits erred, it was not in their weekend numbers but in not polling on Monday," when Hillary was picking up late support. During those final hours, there was "a media feeding frenzy over Clinton’s show of emotion when responding to a voter’s question on Monday morning. Video of her 'emotional' moment was everywhere. It was played over and over with unrelenting commentary. Hillary Clinton was again the victim." All told, "how New Hampshire voters were evaluating the race and the factors they were weighing in the last hours of the campaign were never measured."


As for the Republicans:

Remember the scene in Godfather II, when various warring factions engaged in a gun battle on a New York City street corner, firing in all directions, and it was impossible to keep track of who was shooting at whom?

The race for the GOP presidential nomination is starting to look like that.

And no, I'm not trying to equate the Republicans with mobsters. Suffice it to say, we now have three different winners in three different states – John McCain in New Hampshire last night, Mitt Romney in Wyoming last weekend, and Mike Huckabee in Iowa last Thursday – and the plot hasn’t even begun to thicken. Up next is a showdown between McCain and Romney in Michigan next Tuesday, followed by a showdown between Huckabee and Fred Thompson in South Carolina a week from Saturday (joined perhaps by whoever wins Michigan), followed by a showdown in Florida one week thereafter between Rudy Giuliani and whoever else might still be stranding.

This is not the way that Republicans traditionally conduct their business. Normally they coalesce around either a senior figure who has earned his turn (say, Bob Dole in 1996), or the party establishment designates a frontrunner (say, George W. Bush in 2000) and gives him so much money that a lot of would-be rivals are scared away long before the voting begins. Not so this time. President Bush, given his broad unpopularity, was in no position to anoint a successor; most Americans would probably have run screaming in the other direction. And some top-tier Republicans (say, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush) took a pass, figuring that 2008 will be a rough Republican year.

Hence the current absence of clarity, and the alarms that are ringing within the GOP establishment. Romney is arguably the closest thing to a mainstream conservative candidate – well-heeled, business-friendly, willing to bend rightward on the party’s litmus test issues – but he spent around 200 days visiting New Hampshire, and he just got waxed by McCain, whose contrarian instincts have long been anathema to the party establishment. And Romney got waxed in Iowa by Huckabee, an up-from-the-bootstraps Baptist preacher who spends half his time railing against big business and Wall Street. (Memo to Mitt: You’ll always have Wyoming.)

Romney also employed a traditional Republican practice that really backfired in New Hampshire: he led the league in negative TV ads, mostly attacking McCain. In exit polls, Republican primary voters cited Romney as the architect of the most “unfair” campaign. As happened in Iowa, where he also spent lavishly to attack his rivals, Romney misread the mood of the electorate. Republican voters in general are fed up with business as usual (which is why they’ve chosen Huckabee and McCain), and want more civil campaign conduct.

It’s hard to see how this race sorts itself out. Romney was born in Michigan, and his dad was a popular three-term governor – but McCain won that state’s primary when he first ran in 2000, largely because registered independents are allowed to participate. They can do so again next Tuesday. McCain remains strong among independents (who were permitted to vote in New Hampshire), but, lest we overlook this important finding, he also defeated Romney last night among registered Republicans. According to the exit polls, they saw McCain as the candidate most qualified to be commander-in-chief in the war on terror.

But wait...isn’t that supposed to be Giuliani’s raison d’etre? Hence another complication. Giuliani last night finished way down in the pack, somewhere deep in Ron Paul territory, supposedly because he had decided to skip New Hampshire and wait for the pack to find him in Florida. It turns out, however, that Giuliani spent 126 days in New Hampshire, surpassing McCain and Huckabee, so apparently his alleged 9/11 luster didn’t mean squat.

Perhaps Giuliani will battle it out with McCain three weeks hence, for the right to be perceived as the toughest anti-terror leader – assuming that Giuliani’s Florida numbers don’t go south, simply because he’s off the radar screen for so long; and assuming that McCain survives Michigan and South Carolina, the latter of which is heavily populated by religious conservatives who might give Huckabee enough bounce to stay in the fray. All of which assumes that Romney won’t simply write himself a check – he’s personally worth around $200 million – to keep himself alive, and that Fred Thompson, who was marketed last summer as the party’s savior, somehow gets a pulse.

This race could go on for a good long while. And as I recall, Godfather II clocked in at three hours and 20 minutes.


By the way, the enthusiasm gap persists. The New Hampshire GOP primary drew 238,909 voters (the latest figure, with 99 percent of the precincts reporting), which is virtually identical to the number of voters who cast ballots in the 2000 GOP primary. But whereas the 2000 Republican turnout exceeded the 2000 Democratic turnout by more than 83,000, this time the rankings are reversed. This time the GOP tally was dwarfed by the opposition's tally (at last count, 287,849, a New Hampshire primary record). That's nearly 53,000 more voters on the Democratic side of the ledger, and further proof that Democrats, as well as Democratic-leaning independents, are more stoked about the '08 race.