Election 2008: The Year Without A Frontrunner

A well-worn political adage states that when it comes to picking the presidential candidates, Iowa and New Hampshire decide for the nation.  This year, in both parties, Iowa and New Hampshire decided to pass.

The two traditional gatekeepers of American candidate selection have failed to anoint a clear frontrunner in either party, succeeding only in shaking out a few of the obviously less viable candidates.

For those who have long complained that these states have far too much influence over the choices of the rest of the nation, this is wonderful news and an event that is unlikely to be repeated for decades.  We will now go into Michigan, South Carolina and perhaps even Super Tuesday with a wide-open race in both parties.

This unusual turn of events began several years ago, when Vice President Dick Cheney decided he would not try to succeed George W. Bush as President.   Without an anointed and inevitable heir, the GOP race was anybody’s guess, with each candidate having to cobble together coalitions rather than simply being handed the keys to the party machine.

On the Democrat side, the lack of a clear adversary from the GOP robbed Hillary Clinton, the early frontrunner of the opposition party, of the unifying force of fear and loathing.  There was no specific bogeyman to point to in November.  There was no surrogate to burden with the pent-up hatred of the Bush administration.

In both camps, the campers have had a chance to turn their thoughts inward and ask, without an obvious choice or a pressing threat, “Who do we want to lead?”

So far, the answer has been a clear “Uh……..”

Some candidate is declared in the lead on an hourly basis by pollsters and there has been a “winner” in each of the contests, but the simple fact is that no candidate has gotten more than 39% of the vote anywhere.  The one exception is Mitt Romney who won a majority in the Wyoming caucus.  This event garnered little press attention and Romney’s result was made less impressive by the fact that many of the candidates did not bother to find Wyoming.

On the delegate count, Obama and Romney are the very narrow leaders, but no one has more than about 2% of what he (or she) needs to win.

Who does this situation benefit?  It’s so unusual, it’s hard to say.  Clearly, the situation has been a major defeat for Hillary Clinton, who was expected to walk away with the Democrat nomination like it was part of the White House china.  Her inevitability seems very evitable now.  Winning New Hampshire by 3 points in a badly split race facing challengers running without the benefit of having inherited a two term Presidents political network and machine is ridiculous.  Were she a decent candidate the race should be over by now.  It may occur to Dems that she might not be the sort of campaign natural they want batting for them in November.

By contrast the situation is major win for both Obama and Edwards, who have managed to crack open the Clinton coronation (a badly overused cliché, I know) and turn it into a three way race.  The situation is to Obama’s benefit more than Edwards’, but going into Michigan and South Carolina that could change.  Odds are still strong that Clinton can pull it together, but a fight will have to be fought now.

Since an Obama nomination seems to be really possible now, it will be interesting to watch where the black vote in Michigan and especially South Carolina settles.  The Clintons had a natural advantage early on thanks to the many leadership connections forged by Bill Clinton’s presidency, but what the grass roots black vote does is getting harder to predict.

On the Republican side, we face the unusual prospect of there being a different winner in many early races and this situation seems to me to benefit Romney.  Romney is running well nearly everywhere and even if he doesn’t win a particular contest he is very likely to take second in it.  Iowa was Romney and Huckabee.  New Hampshire came down to Romney and McCain.  Michigan currently looks to be Romney and Huckabee and McCain.  Nevada is Romney and Giuliani.  South Carolina is Huckabee, Thompson, Romney and McCain.  And Florida is Giuliani in the lead and a battle for second between Huckabee, McCain and Romney. 

In a race in which the regions can’t agree on a first place finisher, Romney could win simply by being the most widely popular finalist — especially if it comes down to a real delegate count.  That’s a very unlikely outcome, but an interesting one to think about.  There might be a chance for last minute horse trading and a ticket determined by a deal for the VP spot.

It’s still anybody’s race.  And I believe that’s a good thing.  We have a chance for the candidates to be chosen by millions, rather than thousands. 

Now on to Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina. It seems unlikely to be definitely decided by anything but Super Tuesday. This could end up being a national primary after all.


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