Sabato's Crystal Ball

Iowa: The Instant Analysis

Larry J. Sabato and the Crystal Ball Team, U.Va. Center for Politics January 20th, 2004

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In the wee hours of Jan. 20, 2004, one year to Inauguration Day…

After a three year build-up, the results are in, and friends, it’s a whole new campaign!

Turnout total: early estimates near 125,000

So what does it mean?

KERRY = COMEBACK KID

John Kerry has earned the 2004 title of “The Comeback Kid,” and if the movement to him continues, he will rival Richard Nixon’s resurrection in the 1960s and Bill Clinton’s rebirth in 1992. Kerry has always looked most like a president of those in the Democratic field, but serendipity played a role here. The public reunion of the Vietnam veteran and the senator who saved his life was completely unplanned, but more electrifying than anything that happened in the last week.

EDWARDS = MOVING ON UP

John Edwards has almost as much reason to be pleased. Having finally caught a break with the endorsement of the Des Moines Register – a liberal paper read carefully by Democrats – Edwards became a phenomenon in the last week. Finally, the best campaigner of the post-Clinton Democratic generation has drawn the spotlight so that he can demonstrate his considerable skills.

DEAN = GOODBYE TO FRONTRUNNER STATUS

The Dean showing is surprisingly bad, worse than even his most pessimistic staff members thought possible. Having been pulverized by a press that didn’t much like him and shellacked by a group of Democratic opponents determined to bring him down, Dean has proven the burden of the title of “early frontrunner.” His own gaffes were very damaging, but actually less serious than the gaffes committed by Wesley Clark. The difference? Dean had practically been crowned as the nominee after the Gore endorsement, so his gaffes appeared to matter more.

GEPHARDT = FAREWELL TO ARMS

Timing is everything in sex and politics, and Dick Gephardt’s timing has consistently been bad. He ran for president in 1988 as too young and inexperienced to win; he assumed the Democratic leadership in the U.S. House at the very moment when the Republicans were taking over control for the first time in 40 years; and he launched his second presidential campaign as a senior Washington politician when Democrats were looking elsewhere. Gephardt was an able leader nonetheless, and as his political career ends, he will be missed.

So where do we go from here?

N.H. = CAUCUS ENVY

Kerry will probably shoot up quickly in the New Hampshire polls. Unless John Edwards decides to make a last-minute stand in New Hampshire, this will be a Kerry-Dean-Clark race in the Granite State. There will be wild gyrations in the eight days before the New Hampshire primary, so it’s worth remembering one thing. Perhaps to preserve their unique status, New Hampshire voters seem to prefer to vote for someone other than the Iowa winner. After all, they aren’t there just to ratify a farm state’s choice!

S.C. = EDWARDS COUNTRY AT LAST???

Edwards will head mainly to South Carolina, and he will at least begin as the favorite. Should he win there, he will be in serious contention to win Virginia and Tennessee on February 10 – though truly, that date is several eternities away now.

DEAN = DISAPPOINTMENT OR DISASTER???

Dean is potentially in deep trouble. The promises of “internet punch” and “youth power” have proven hollow, at least in the first key contest. (Yes, the internet raised money and generated young volunteers, but what good are money and volunteers if they can’t produce votes?) Dean may find that he is beached by a Kerry tidal wave. Or Clark may hold onto his second-place showing in the polls and become Kerry’s main challenger. Or maybe this time Dean can become the “comeback kid.” But Dean is cornered, and even with all his money and 50-state organization, he is badly wounded by his unimpressive Iowa finish. Yes, Dean can surprise and win – but the once-likely nominee is now just another candidate. On a historical note, Dean had better hope it is 1988 all over again, when both third-place Iowa candidates (George Bush and Michael Dukakis) eventually won their party nominations. Like them, Dean may be able to turn this setback around, either dramatically (as did Bush and Dukakis) or by eking out a convention win, one delegate at a time, state after state, all the way to Boston in July.

GEPHARDT=ENDORSEMENT TO FOLLOW???

Gephardt’s withdrawal leads to one question: Who will he endorse? Certainly not Dean. It’s between Kerry and Edwards, and it matters since Gephardt can probably transfer some union support (if it matters after labor’s dismal performance for both Gephardt and Dean in Iowa).

So what else did we learn from this fascinating Iowa contest?

NEVER TAKE N.H. TO LAS VEGAS:

As we head for New Hampshire, it is well worth remembering President Paul Tsongas (1992), President Pat Buchanan (1996), and President John McCain (2000). Of late, the Granite State has had a terrible record of picking the out-of-power party’s eventual nominee. Will the state’s voters make it four in a row?

THE YEAR OF SURPRISES:

Fewer than one in 10 registered voters in an out-of-the-way farm state have turned the presidential race on its head. If this can happen in the first state to vote, how many more times can it happen as we go forward?

ENDORSEMENTS = WORTH THE VOTE OF THE ENDORSER AND HALF THE TIME HIS OR HER SPOUSE:

Al Gore, Bill Bradley, Jimmy Carter (kind of), Carol Moseley Braun, Tom Harkin, and many others have just reminded us how little most endorsements matter. To think this list of first-class luminaries was outdone by the less-than-imposing combination of the Des Moines Register, the first lady of Iowa, and one Vietnam vet!

BAD PREDICTIONS:

Solidarity forever? Maybe. But union power turned in an Iowa performance that would have made the late, incomparable AFL-CIO boss George Meany retch. Both labor campaigns (Gephardt and Dean) tanked. And what was all that talk about how organization trumps popularity in caucus states?

QUESTIONS FOR BUSH:

Lastly, but maybe most importantly, the gloom hanging over the Gephardt and Dean headquarters may be matched or exceeded by the dark cloud forming over the Bush White House. Not only may the president not get his wish of a Dean nomination, but Democrats seem unusually focused on the “electability” factor, which rarely has mattered before. This suggests that Democrats will quickly unite after the process is over with a party-wide goal of defeating Bush in November. On the other hand, it’s fair to emphasize that all four frontrunners in Iowa plus Wesley Clark are well to the left on virtually every social and domestic issue. Those positions simply won’t sell in much of America – unless a plurality of the country decides that George Bush must go because of Iraq and job losses, whatever the price on other matters.