With roughly a month to go until the nominating process actually begins in Iowa, the contours of the 2008 presidential race are now clear. On the Democratic side, the nomination is still Hillary Clinton’s to lose. And on the Republican side, which we’ll review in depth next week, there are still, incredibly, five candidates with a legitimate chance to gain the GOP nod.
Because the mainstream press focuses on the day-to-day machinations of the campaign — a process exacerbated by the rise of Internet coverage, which takes every minute-by-minute development and blows it up out of proportion — it’s often difficult to get a sense of the big picture.
But each race has now assumed a discernible story line. For any of the Democrats not named Clinton, the key is to beat her in Iowa, lest they see their chances for an upset slip away. Sure, the nomination likely won’t be decided until February 5, when more than 20 states hold their contests. But if Clinton’s challengers can’t beat her in Iowa on January 3, they’re unlikely to win in the other key Democratic tests before Super Tuesday — namely New Hampshire on January 8 and South Carolina on January 26. The race, then, will be over almost before it started.
(Michigan will also hold a primary on January 15, but the DNC declared the state to be in violation of the rules on the ordering of primaries, so most of the Democratic contenders have asked to have their names removed from the ballot. As a result, the press is unlikely to cover it extensively. The Nevada caucus on January 19 is also likely to receive little coverage, since caucuses, which require voters to meet at a designated spot and time to declare their preference publicly, tend to attract fewer voters than primaries. Plus, South Carolina Republicans are holding their primary the same day, so that’s bound to steal some headlines from Nevada.)
Clinton currently holds about a 20-point lead in most national polls, which should give her some security. After all, one has to go back to 1972, when George McGovern bested early leader Edmund Muskie, to find a race in which a front-runner blew such a large lead going into the primaries. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen again. But it does mean, despite Clinton’s well-publicized recent travails — specifically her sub-par debate performance in late October and some narrowing opinion polls in Iowa and New Hampshire — that it’s unlikely.
Clinton does, however, have two Achilles’s heels. The first is that an unusually large number of voters just don’t like her, raising the possibility that, if an opponent could galvanize all the anti-Clinton voters on his behalf, he might have a chance of upsetting her.
The second is that, if she had to rank all 50 states in which she’d like to be tested first, Clinton would probably put Iowa last. There’s a bit of a culture clash between New York, Clinton’s designated home, and Iowa — which is one reason Rudy Giuliani has, by and large, stayed away from the Hawkeye State. Clinton’s husband didn’t even run there in 1992, conceding Iowa to favorite son Tom Harkin, so she has had to build her organization from scratch. And Barack Obama is a senator from a neighboring state, which, on paper at least, should be a huge advantage — even though the press seldom mentions it. (Although Clinton grew up in Illinois, it’s not the same as representing it in an elected national body.)