Call it the revenge of the little guys, if you will. Despite some larger states’ attempts to influence the presidential campaign by bumping up their primary dates, the smaller states who kick off the season are still the ones to watch.
In fact, political experts are almost unanimous in their agreement that the front-loaded nature of this primary season means Iowa and New Hampshire, the contests of which are among the first in the nation, will be more important than ever. After all, strong showings in these smaller states can create momentum for candidates as they head into the super-primaries later.
Could the lesser-known candidates ride the bigger-isn’t-necessarily-better wave to unexpected victory? It’s unlikely, but we’ll have to wait to see. Here’s a recap of how the Democratic candidates are doing in the early states and what kind of showing they need to remain viable. In a future week, we’ll tackle the Republicans.
Obama would be hard pressed to pick a worse series of opening states than Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire — especially since it looks as if caucuses aren’t going to be his strong suit. At this point, it seems unlikely that his organization in those states will be as strong as either Clinton’s or Edwards’s. Plus, Obama tends to appeal more to Independents rather than Democrats. That’s bad news, since caucuses are often controlled by party regulars. Moreover, none of the first three states has many black voters, which is Obama’s natural base.
New Hampshire is the wild card; Independents can vote in their primary. And in the past, thoughtful, independent-leaning candidates such as Gary Hart or Paul Tsongas have done well in that state. And if he bombs in New Hampshire, South Carolina is Obama’s ace in the hole: with a large number of black voters, he already leads the others in at least one local poll.
Prediction: At this point, it seems likely that Obama will place third in Iowa, second or third in Nevada, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina. If Obama doesn’t win at least one of the first four states, he’s in a bit of trouble. But if he wins more than one state — especially New Hampshire — he’ll become the new front-runner. Obama would be wise to remember the lesson learned by Howard Dean: a weak showing in Iowa could lead voters to conclude he’s headed nowhere, which could hurt his showing in the next three states and cripple his campaign.
As the front-runner, Clinton will be expected to win virtually every contest, so defeats will cost her more than the others. Having said that, her position is opposite that of Obama: the first few states play to her organization’s strengths, plus they primarily involve Democrats (as opposed to Independents). Still, Clinton faces problems: Edwards has a lot of residual support in Iowa from his last run; her husband didn’t carry New Hampshire in 1992; and South Carolina is not an easy state for any New Yorker.
Prediction: Right now, Clinton is expected to come in a close second in Iowa, first in Nevada, first in New Hampshire, and second in South Carolina. The press will read even that as slippage, but it isn’t. The bottom line is, if Hillary doesn’t win New Hampshire, she’s in trouble. If she does, she’s in decent shape heading into Super Tuesday on February 5.