Friday, July 29, 2005

Iowa On My Mind

Yes I know, we're two and a half years away from any primary or caucus and one and a half years away from any pre-primary/caucus campaigning. Still, it won't hurt to start thinking about what potential contenders in 08 should do to garner their party's nomination, beginning with the Iowa caucuses, which traditionally start things off.

Part of this process should entail discovering what, if any, lessons can be applied from the past successes and failures of previous candidates, on the campaign trail in general, and in Iowa in particular. Because as has been the case in most years, I suspect Iowa will play a crucial role in 08, both for dark horse candidates as well as for those considered to be front-runners.

Iowa has been kind to, if you'll pardon the expression, insurgent candidates, candidates not well known prior to the campaign. Jimmy Carter comes to mind. Before his abrupt crash, Dean was leading in the state last year. More about Dean in a few.

Iowa has also been kind to candidates from neighboring states, especially those that border it. Dole in 88, Gephardt and Paul Simon in 88. As one of its Senators, Tom Harkin won the state's caucuses, largely uncontested, in 1992.

At the same time, Iowa has given its early support to candidates considered as the front-runners when either a neighboring or surprise candidate has not run or made an impact. Gore and W Bush both won here in 2000. Kerry, the assumed 2004 front runner before the rise of Dean, ultimately came back to win these caucuses after early campaign stumbles.

So what does this history, short as it is, imply for 2008's candidates?

First, it would make sense to establish the field of candidates and categorize their candidacies. For the Democrats I believe their are three front-runners, HRC, Kerry and Edwards. I call them front runners in the sense that they will likely attract most of the media attention in the months before the caucuses (and will probably have the cash to establish broader campaigns).

There is a second tier of candidates that lag just a little behind the front-runners. You might call these the "on the bubble" candidates or something like that, the ones that are on the verge of breaking through as front-runners. I think two candidates fit this depiction: Biden and Clark. Of the non-front runners in the campaign, I think Biden would, at least on paper, represent the candidate with the most upside in terms of projected viability, especially given his foreign policy credentials. I put Clark on this list, too, partly because of his foreign policy experience and given that he ran last time, and ran well at least in a couple of states, given his late start. I'm not sure Clark is politically savy enough to last long term. But he has time to get himself together.

Finally, there are the outsider, insurgent candidates. I include on this list, Bayh, Richardson, Feingold, and Warner. None of the four have run in any previous presidential primaries and are the least known of the batch.

Nonetheless, and perhaps because of this fact, Iowa represents a huge breakout opportunity for these four. Feingold, being from a neighboring state, and Bayh, being close by and from another largely farming based state, stand to gain the most from the benefits of campaigning in Iowa and from any positive showing they might make there. I don't believe either Feingold or Bayh need to win Iowa to maintain their candidacies, but they need to finish in the top three to hope to go on.

For Kerry and Edwards, I think Iowa is a make or break state. Kerry won in 2004 and to carry on this candidacy I think would need to duplicate that effort again. Unlike last year, Kerry will not likely benefit from being perceived as the only electable candidate and would have trouble posting primary victories outside his home region if he doesn't maintain his viability in Iowa.

Edwards is in a similar position and faces equally high expectations. He ran well in Iowa last year but faired poorly in New Hampshire and went on to win only his native born state, South Carolina. As last year's second ran, Edwards would need to improve here, and the only way to to do that would be to win, to maintain his viability. Yes there are some southern and western states voting in the weeks ahead, but a loss here would diminish his standing in those states, inviting consideration of whoever won Iowa or finished unexpectedly high.

I actually don't think Hillary needs to win here, although I think anything below a third place finish, and perhaps even below second, would do her real harm.

For Warner or Richardson, a win in Iowa would be a huge boon to their candidacies, particularly since neither hails from the region.

All of this is to say that there is a lot riding on Iowa and candidates seeking to breakthrough or remain viable will need to compete hard and long here. And Iowa will probably winnow the field significantly.

Which brings us to Dean. After Dean started getting significant media attention in the summer and fall of 2003, particularly from his on-line fundraising, there was talk of whether he was "peaking too fast". In a way this premonition turned out to be correct. Although there were "outside events" that helped torpedoe his candidacy, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein, I suspect Dean may have also suffered from the syndrome of having run a national campaign before having run and won the Iowa campaign. Consider as an example the attention Dean got from his "What I want to know is" speech in Sacramento. It showed boldness and great leadership, which the party was in desperate need of. But it also symbolized the national reach of his candidacy and ironically, may have represented his campaign's weakness. Basically what I mean is, his image may have "gone national" in the minds of both his campaign as well as his webside supporters (including me), but in the process, he may have been diverted in his attention to winning Iowa. This allowed Kerry to get another look from the voters and the opportunity to come out ahead.

Candidates hoping to be successful in Iowa in 08 will need to keep this memory in mind. Focus on winning Iowa before spreading your resources and attention to other states and the nomination. Along with this, Dean's "meltdown" can partly be attributed to burn out, both the candidate's as well as the audience's. This suggests the advisability of candidates "staying on message", and staying in the state long enough to get to know the state's voters and concerns without at the same time, becoming a lightening rod of national controversy.

This is another angle that I suspect will give insurgent candidates an opportunity to exceed expectations in Iowa.

One final thing. Dean's collapse should help convince us of the left blogosphere of the limits of our influence and wishes. We can obviously help candidates we want to see succeed, but success in Iowa will most likely come from the candidate him or herself, not because of any money or moral support he or she will get from the Web.

Over the weekend I intend to re-read the section on the 1976 campaign recounted by Jimmy Carter biographer, and campaign aide, Peter Bourne. For people interested in campaigns and in Carter himself, I recommend the book heartily. In re-reading the 1976 section, I hope to uncover insights that might be useful for the next round of candidates.

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