Friday, December 28, 2007
The Smokefilled Room
So you think you're confused about the impact Thursday's Iowa caucuses will have on the outcome of the presidential campaign, try explaining what they mean to a French listener. Once you've pointed out that Iowa is representative of the country in neither demographics nor economy, and that it plays no role to speak of in the nation's cultural life, and that the only other time it's mentioned in the course of national politics is never again for another four years, you're left with the obvious question of just how it's become the traditional arbiter of who will be the next president of the United States. Adding as an afterthought that the foregoing is also true for the New Hampshire primaries only renders the moment -- wherein both of you ponder the inescapable conclusion that the entire world really does suffer the consequences of the American electoral process -- even more awkward and self-conscious.
That said, Iowa really doesn't decide everything. In fact, if you look at the list of past winners, not only does it not decide everything, it decides close to nothing. The historical case for an Iowa surprise is of course Jimmy Carter's stunning 1976 loss to first-place finisher "Uncommitted". But if you take a look at that particular list of nominees, any one of them finishing runner-up to "None of the above" would have qualified as a surprise. After that, in two elections that could be qualified as wide open, 1988 and 2004, the Democratic Party's ultimate nominee finished third (Dukakis) and first (Kerry) respectively. The Republican outcomes reveal no clear pattern either.
Iowa is more of a political Rorshcach test than a deciding contest. It means what we want it to mean. Expectations going in, organization and financing coming out, the media's preferred storylines all play as much a role as the vote count. So now I'm ready for a prediction. Barring some stunning landslide blowout that seems unlikely, Iowa will decide nothing. A handful of candidates competing for cabinet level appointments will drop out. Besides that, the campaign will look remarkably similar the day after the caucuses as it did the day before. We'll be asking the same questions (electability) about the same candidates (Hillary, Obama, the entire GOP field) with just as little certainty about the answers.
And no, I don't think New Hampshire is likely to change that either. For different reasons, the two parties will have a hard time deciding on a nominee this year, the GOP because of a lack of solid candidates, the Democrats because of a wealth of them. So while some have called this the "change" election, I think it will be more of a "throwback" election: In a binary primary campaign with an early break, the convention becomes an imprimatur; in a triangulated primary with no early break, which looks at least possible for both parties, the convention becomes a negotiation.
It makes for better theater, but the implications for American democracy are obviously troubling. So I sure hope I'm wrong. But I've got a sneaking suspicion that I'm not.