Monday, January 14, 2008

Hurray for the Voters

The Beltway punditocracy had another bad day on Tuesday in New Hampshire, but I suspect the voters had a good day upsetting so many intricately-wrought scenarios for the presidential nominating contests.

As I have consistently pointed out over the past year, this is an almost perfect contrarian political cycle, with conventional wisdom receiving one blow after another.

Now that Hillary Clinton has upset their apple cart, count on the punditocracy to rush in with a grocery bag full of reasons why she will now win the nomination. Florida is hers, they will argue, and the big industrial states following will succumb to her appeal to the traditional Democratic base. As for Barak Obama, for the media he may now turn out to be a one-night stand. Of course, John Edwards, most of the punditocracy concluded after Iowa, is the walking political dead.

I suggest, however, that we continue not to know where the two nomination contests are going to conclude. That is because the nation¹s voters are still sorting everything out. Perhaps the system we have used for the past several decades, with primaries and caucuses scattered over several months, is not quite so bad as many have been saying it is.

I do think it is now clear that the electorate is in a visible state of transition, and that models of the past, while still of some use, are being replaced with new voter groups and attitudes. Being in transition, voters are not acting decisively, but rather are trying out various political ideas and candidates for size and quality.

The races for the Democratic and Republican nominations have only really begun in spite of the historically prolonged preliminaries. The question of whether there or not there will be a serious independent challenger in November is far from settled. Under certain circumstances, a third party candidate (such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg) could still be a very major factor in the race.

On the Democratic side, we are likely now to see a protracted contest through, and perhaps past, Mega-Tuesday on February 5. Anyone who has observed the post-Iowa excitement for Senator Obama in the Democratic grass roots across the country will have a difficult time believing his candidacy will now politely fold up and withdraw. And apparently, John Edwards is not yet prepared to leave the field for a quiet life in his big new house. His populist message has not been entirely ignored by Democratic voters so far, and may yet have some prospects ahead. At the very least, as he accumulates delegates, he makes it difficult for either of his rivals to build an overwhelming lead.

On the Republican side, the picture of the race is very out of focus. John McCain has made a remarkable comeback out of personal grit and candor. He is not quite yet a frontrunner, but he definitely has a chance to win. Mike Huckabee now has the attention of a major part of the GOP base, and his personal campaign skills make him a formidable competitor. Mitt Romney has suffered two disappointing second- and third-place finishes, but he still has money and organization with so many states yet to be heard from. South Caolina will be a good test to see if Fred Thompson can be a major player in the contest; if he remains in the race after that, he will surely begin to accumulate delegates. Finally, although the conventional wisdom has begun to rule Rudy Giuliani out of the picture, he has still not competed in the kind of state where he is likely to do well, particularly in the industrial northeast. It is mistake to say, at this point,that Giuliani cannot re-emerge in the weeks ahead.

Many of the traditional tools of the punditocracy are no longer as useful. The polls, in particular, are no longer reliable. It was good to see that exit polls are not being used as they once were, particularly by news organizations. (In New Hampshire, exit polls showed Obama beating Clinton.) Focus groups, the darling of some consultants, increasingly become less accurate predictors when the electorate at large is in the state of transition I now believe it is.

This brings us back to those who are counted, the voters. Iowa and New Hampshire have demonstrated, and future primaries will likely continue to demonstrate, that voters are not in a mood this year to be second-guessed. They are doing important and necessary work, as our representative democracy requires, in a political year with no incumbent, lots of real change ahead, and so much at stake.


-This article first appeared in Real Clear Politics January 14, 2008.

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