Tuesday, January 20, 2004
Well, I must say, I am pleased. I don't subscribe to the hyper-partisan perspective that you want the other party to nominate a lunatic so that your side is sure to win. I don't buy it for two reasons. First, because you never know, and the lunatic might just win. Second, because if the other side nominates a loser, then your side has no incentive to run for a mandate rather than just piling up the vote total. Did Reagan run an idea-driven campaign in 1984, or Nixon in 1972? No. Running against Dean, Bush would likely run on atmospherics and mush and win in a landslide - and he would have a mandate for nothing.
What's next? After his terrifying performance Monday night, the prospects for a total Dean meltdown are quite real. Remember: the most important thing for Democrats is who can beat Bush. It's hard to make a case for Dean these days on that score. And if Dean melts down, the rationale for the Clark candidacy - Clark's the guy to beat Dean, remember? - becomes a little shaky. If you've got a war-hero senator and a Southern-charmer senator performing credibly, why do you need a Southern general with no political experience and no discernable views as your standard-bearer? Why take the risk, if you don't need to?
Of course, even if Kerry wins New Hampshire, he's got a problem: he's got a very weak presence on the ground in the Feb 3rd contests. And in the last few contested primaries, South Carolina has pretty much determined the nominee, not New Hampshire. The last South Carolina poll showed a Dean-Clark contest with Edwards a close third. Iowa should change that, boosting both Edwards and Kerry, and a Kerry victory in New Hampshire would change it even more. But can Kerry really come from 2% to victory, especially against Edwards (who should be surging as well after Iowa)? That seems far too much to hope for. Kerry'll contest South Carolina, but he'll be competing for second - or even third - and hoping for an Edwards victory to knock Clark out. The result in South Carolina could easily be equivocal, with an Edwards victory but a decent showing by Clark, Kerry and/or Dean.
Beyond South Carolina it doesn't look much better for Kerry on Feb 3rd. New Mexico, a caucus state, is where he polled best most recently, but that's not much of a prize. Arizona is Clark's best state. Missouri is Edwards' best chance for a pickup apart from South Carolina; no one has been focusing on it because Gephardt was supposed to win it as the favorite son, but now he's out, and I think Edwards is pretty well positioned to pick up Gephardt's voters. So even if he wins New Hampshire, it could be tough for Kerry on Feb 3rd.
But if it's tough for Kerry, will it be great for anyone else? Remember: the delegates are assigned proportionally. Dean has been polling in the 20% or more range pretty much everywhere. Even if he collapses, he's not going to vanish entirely. And I think we can safely say, after last night's show, that he is *not* dropping out, even if he comes in third in New Hampshire. He could crack the 15% barrier for getting delegates in several states - New Mexico, Arizona, maybe South Carolina depending on how well he does in New Hampshire. And Dean still has piles of money in the bank; he can keep campaigning, if he wants to, through Super Tuesday. Clark is polling similarly, and (at least for now) has pretty significant fund-raising capabilities. Even if these guys don't win many contests - even if they don't win *any* - they could deny a clear victory to any other candidate on Feb 3rd. If Kerry trips up in New Hampshire, and Clark or Dean win, then I'd say Clark's the front-runner of the Feb 3rd contests (an Edwards win in South Carolina would be discounted, and a loss would end his candidacy). But if Kerry wins New Hampshire, but doesn't win anything on Feb 3rd, we don't really have a front-runner. We have a mess.
It'll be very interesting to see if former President Clinton decides to weigh in on the contest, and if so, at what point. The Democrats really do want to pick a winner by March 2nd. They want that winner to be a strong candidate, with adequate monetary resources and with a positive public image. Clinton can't stop Dean. He probably can pull the plug on Clark. And his tacit endorsement is probably necessary for Edwards to be able to vault up to front-runner status. Anyhow, we've got a race on our hands, that's for sure.