Mike and Barry? Nah

Let us all tip our hats to the Prince of Darkness:  two days ago, Bob Novak predicted that Hillary Clinton would finish third in Iowa, and as of late last night, she did.  Mike Huckabee won the Republican race, but his win probably means less than Hillary’s loss.

Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses.  But that doesn’t mean a Mike versus Barry race this fall.  The Iowa caucuses — as they have in the past — are likely to be inconclusive for both parties. And, at least on the Republican side, Iowa may not even be relevant to the final choice of a nominee.

The winners in Iowa cannot count on much of a “bounce” or measurable momentum leaving Iowa and going into the New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan contests.  Few, if any, of the Iowa contestants were dealt a fatal blow.

Iowa wasn’t about winning: it was about not losing. For the leaders, Romney and Clinton, it was about avoiding significant damage.  Neither achieved that goal.  The late night Republican returns showed Mike Huckabee at 34%, Mitt Romney nine points behind at 25% and Fred Thompson tied for third with John McCain at 13%.

The Iowa caucuses have been much more important to Democrats than Republicans, which means the loss by Hillary Clinton is very significant.  Obama beat Hillary Clinton 37% to 29%.  More importantly, Bob Novak’s prediction that Hillary would come in third proved true by the slimmest of margins:  John Edwards beat her by one point.  Do the math:  70% of the Dems caucus-goers couldn’t be convinced to vote for Hillary in the several rounds of voting before the results were reached.

Clinton, whose huge campaign warchest isn’t much diminished (nor is her national machine) by the Iowa result, won’t end her bid.  But now she’s an underdog, the second or third choice.  She has a tough road ahead to come back. And Hillary is no Bill:  the “Comeback Kid” succeeded on selling his charm. Hillary is the snake, not the charmer.

The entrance polls — used instead of exit polls because of the fluidity of the Democrat caucuses — showed two important points.

First, among Republicans (most of whom identified themselves as conservatives and a great many of whom were Evangelical Christians) illegal immigration was the biggest issue. For Democrats, issues were as fuzzy as their late decision-making.  Fox reported that about 51% of the Dems were most concerned with “change.” 

Second, the lack of early commitment among Democrats — not paralleled among Republicans — shows Obama’s win to be a soft one.  At about 8:15 pm last night, CNN was reporting that about 25% of Iowa caucus attendees hadn’t made up their minds before arriving at their caucus sites.  A hard win — either more than 50% of the vote, or at least a vote by committed voters — would have meant a lot more. 

The same is true for Huckabee.  His win — apparently propelled by a large Evangelical turnout and a backlash against Romney’s negative ads — doesn’t create momentum going into New Hampshire.  Iowa is untypical, more populist and more variable.  New Hampshire is more liberal than Iowa on issues such as abortion, and contrarily more conservative on national security issues.  Huckabee’s strength doesn’t translate, but his weaknesses do.  Yesterday’s polls showed McCain still leading in New Hampshire with Romney about three points behind.  Huckabee’s polls in New Hampshire were still in single digits. 

Huckabee and Obama will both benefit from Iowa because of a media bounce which may not convert into votes next Tuesday.  The coverage of both will be worth millions in advertising dollars, the Sunday morning shows fawning over both.  (Except for Chris Matthews, who must be in tears over Hillary’s defeat).

New Hampshire is only four days away, and weekend polls will tell the tale.  Any big swings — toward Huckabee at least — would be a great surprise.  Will Romney’s negativity against Huckabee help him in New Hampshire?  Probably not.  It’s possible for Romney to overcome John McCain and win in New Hampshire.  But McCain, a long-time New Hampshire favorite, is more likely to gain in the next few days than either Romney or Huckabee.  In New Hampshire and other states, the religious network that delivered Iowa for Huckabee doesn’t exist. And in places such as South Carolina, Huckabee will face a more coherent and persistent, less negative opponent:  Fred Thompson.

Thompson’s third-place finish was good but not great.  After disappointing many conservatives with his slow September start, Thompson’s fast-break in the last weeks paid off.  Thompson’s December 30 speech, aired on his blog and viewed by large numbers in the days since, hit solid notes that other Republicans hadn’t.  Iowans apparently took Thompson more seriously than the media did, and it paid off.  But the fact that Thompson tied with McCain — whose campaign in Iowa was almost nonexistent — doesn’t mean the Iowa result catapults Thompson into real contention in New Hampshire.

For Obama, he’s lagged Clinton consistently in New Hampshire by about seven points.  If her lead slips more than two or three points over the weekend, she could be in real trouble there. If Obama beats here there, he will have real momentum.

After Iowa, the Republican race is still a long way from decided.  As for the Democrats, the goal posts have just been moved.  Hillary can come back and so can Romney.  Possibly, but not quickly, or easily for either of them.  If you want to place bets on the final outcomes, don’t take Iowa too seriously.   Come November, it’s not going to be Mike versus Barry.


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