For the past year, presidential politics has been building to the crescendo that is the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. But those will be done and gone eight days into the new year, and, strangely enough, the race for the White House will drag on for another 10 months.
You know the process is vitally important to the future of America and the world and stuff, but honestly, how will you stay interested all year?
Here’s an idea: try thinking of it as a reality show, part Survivor, part Amazing Race — maybe call it The Amazing Race for White House Survival. We enter the year with 11 viable contestants: the wise but weak old man (Joe Biden); the controversial strong-willed woman (Hillary Clinton); the likable guy everyone ignores (Chris Dodd); the good-looking guy with a heart of gold (John Edwards); the bully (Rudy Giuliani); the oddball religious zealot (Mike Huckabee); the cranky old guy everyone respects but nobody likes (John McCain); the dynamic racial minority (Barack Obama); the non-dynamic ethnic minority (Bill Richardson); the calculating manipulator (Mitt Romney); and the celebrity contestant (Fred Thompson).
Over the course of the year, these players will face contests and challenges, in six distinct legs of the race, that will test their popularity, deviousness, alliance-building, and other skills that may or may not have anything to do with governing the country. Ten will be eliminated. One will make it to the end, and be crowned the winner. If we’re lucky, the rest will all be thrown together on a remote island somewhere.
Leg 1: Opening frenzy (now through January 8)
To properly grasp the importance — and limitations — of the two kick-off contests, understand that, for most Americans, choosing a primary candidate is much like buying a major appliance. They see a bunch of models that all do pretty much the same thing. How does one begin to choose among 10 refrigerators, or eight dishwashers?
Iowa and New Hampshire select two or three models, creating a manageable task for shoppers, who can easily run through a quick checklist of differences. The media acts as the salesperson, pulling those “hot items” to the front display area and sticking big red tags on them, while shoving the rest of the brands against the back wall.
This year, the parties were going to allow one or two states to move their contests forward, nudging into the opening part of the nomination schedule, to break the Iowa–New Hampshire stranglehold. But after years of debate, commission hearings, official plans, and court battles, we are left with Iowa and New Hampshire starting things off again — just a little earlier.
So, once again, a candidate needs some positive spin out of those two states to get onto the showroom floor. That’s trouble for Giuliani, who was pursuing a “big-state” strategy, and Thompson, who had a Southern strategy. Both are now shifting resources to Iowa, in hopes of an attention-getting surge.
But there is an open question this year, with hotly contested nominations in both parties. Will there be enough media oxygen to give coverage to secondary stories, such as a Republican who pulls off a surprisingly strong third-place finish in Iowa?
For the Democrats, it is almost certain at this point that Clinton and Obama will have the media coverage and the money to chase the nomination beyond the two opening contests. The question is whether any other Democrats will join them. By doing well in Iowa, Edwards could grab the populist mantle, and the campaign contributions that go with it. If he collapses, another second-tier candidate could rise to fulfill that role.
KEY DATES Iowa caucus, January 3; New Hampshire primaries, January 8
PREDICTION On the Republican side, Huckabee wins Iowa and McCain wins New Hampshire. For the Democrats, Iowa goes Obama-Edwards-Clinton and New Hampshire goes Obama-Clinton-Edwards, sending the three of them to battle in South Carolina.
ELIMINATED Dodd, Biden, and Richardson
Leg 2: Grinding for position (January 9 through February 4)
The contests will be fully defined during the four weeks between the New Hampshire primary and Super Tuesday. Four years ago, John Kerry, Howard Dean, Edwards, and Wes Clark emerged from New Hampshire with campaigns intact, but by Super Tuesday it was down to Kerry and Edwards. In 1988 this was the period when a crowded field was narrowed to Michael Dukakis and Al Gore.
This year, due to their clumsy mishandling of the schedule, the Democrats have just one big contest during these four weeks: South Carolina. The party is boycotting the Michigan and Florida contests, and Nevada’s has become so marginalized that Oprah Winfrey didn’t even bother to include it on her big tour for Obama.
South Carolina will be the first big contest between Obama and Clinton for the Southern black vote. But don’t forget that Edwards won the state in 2004 — if he gets momentum, he will camp out there 24/7, hoping to be left in a two-person race with the Clinton-Obama survivor.