There’s been very little movement in state and national Democratic polls over the past six months — a testament to the strength of front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clearly, it’s going to be tough to challenge either from back in the pack.
Movement within the GOP ranks, on the other hand, has been relatively fluid. But perhaps the more important difference between the two races is the calendars they’ll face during the primary’s first month.
This past weekend, the Democratic National Committee announced it would strip Florida — which had sought to schedule its ’08 Democratic primary on January 29 — of its delegates if that state holds a binding primary before February 5. (Presumably the same thing would happen to Michigan if it attempts to move its voting up to January.) For now, that decision seems to concentrate the Democratic field on Iowa (January 14), New Hampshire (January 22), and South Carolina (January 29), with the January 19 Nevada caucus getting minimal attention. In contrast, the GOP currently seems inclined to let South Carolina move to the middle of January and Florida to the end of January, with Michigan possibly in there too.
Holding Florida and Michigan’s contests early would have helped Clinton, since it would have been difficult for Obama or Edwards to challenge her lead in first-month, mega-state races requiring wholesale politics. As it stands now, though, both have a shot at derailing the front-runner before Super Tuesday in three smaller, distinctly differing states.
If Clinton wins all three of these initial contests, the race is obviously over. But right now, her poll numbers in each are sharply lower than they are nationally. January is going to be very interesting, indeed.
In any event, here’s where things stand now for the Democrats as summer starts to wind down. (For our companion pre–Labor Day rundown of the GOP hopefuls, see “White Elephants,” News and Features, August 24.)
Braying for a victory
BARACK OBAMA: THE COME-FROM-BEHIND CHOICE Yes, we know that no one else seems to consider him the Dems’ likeliest choice. And yes, he’s made a few rookie mistakes (to be expected), and he’s lost a bit of sparkle during his debate performances. But he’s hoping the flip side of his ever-presence is that voters are gradually becoming accustomed to him, and that, as a more familiar face, he’ll seem less inexperienced. He still has tons of cash, heavy institutional support in the black community, and a lot of energy through his support among the young. No one should underestimate him.
HILLARY CLINTON: THE PACESETTER She’s run a mistake-free campaign so far. And she is the consensus front-runner — in the polls and among the punditry. But voters have yet to really face the two issues confronting the Clinton candidacy: do they want to relive the Clinton years? And, do they want to nominate a candidate whose chances of winning a general election are thus impaired? Until the contests actually begin, we won’t know if voters are going to swallow their doubts and take a chance on Clinton. The guess here is that at the moment of truth, they’ll blink.