Some Thoughts on the Upcoming Presidential Primaries and the Election

The presidential primary season is about to begin in earnest on Monday. That is the day when Democrats in Iowa will caucus. Eight days later New Hampshire voters will go to the polls to select their favorite candidate. Whoever wins these primaries will doubtless hope to ride these early victories all the way to the nomination. However, if history is any guide many of those now campaigning like mad in both states might have been better off skipping these states altogether. That’s because neither Iowa nor New Hampshire has a great track record picking the candidate who ultimately will win the nomination. So Wesley Clark may be smart to avoid Iowa. Let the others throw money at each other while he conserves his cash, organizes the key southern states, then hits them big on February 3rd and on Super Tuesday. It’s a smart strategy.

I found online results of both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary going back to 1972. I excluded those years when an incumbent was running, and looked only at the Democratic primaries in these states. Both states are batting .500 in picking the eventually nominee. In baseball terms this is a great score, but not here. The best that can be said for winning in these early primaries is that the name recognition may improve a candidate’s odds. But that’s about all that can be said for it. It costs a hell of a lot of time and money to even compete in these states. Part of this is because there are a plethora of candidates for the party out of office in these early caucuses and primaries. If Iowa and New Hampshire have a job, it’s to winnow the candidates’ list down.

The primaries on Feb 3rd should be far more telling. Why? Because the states participating are more moderate states than either New Hampshire or Iowa. On that date Democrats in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina will vote. If I had to pick a bell weather state among these, I’d pick Arizona. Traditionally a fairly conservative state, it has been trending Democratic more and more these days. This is due to a very fast growing population, many of whom migrated from northern states. If I had to bet money (and of course I am rooting for Howard Dean) I’d say the Democrat that wins Arizona will win the nomination.

I proclaim no special prognostication skills when it comes to the primaries and the general election. The tightness of the race in Iowa, according to polls, indicates it is up for grabs. My sense is that Howard Dean will win Iowa. I suspect he will win it by about 5%. I believe it because he has a fanatical youth following. They will turn out for him and work for him in droves. My sense from attending four Dean Meetups is that this will be the real big surprise of the 2004 election. Both parties will wake up and discover that a critical mass of younger adults (those under 30) is now politically engaged. It’s about time Generations X and Y woke up from their lethargy. Maybe they were too young to remember Reagan, and took the wonderful and prosperous 90s for granted. Perhaps now they have woken up to what Republicanism has done to our country. It appears that they don’t find it very agreeable.

In the longer term the odds will still favor Dean simply because he has a network in place and he has the money (and can get a lot more when needed). Dean’s biggest problem will be his mouth. The campaign in Iowa suggests that going negative against his fellow Democrats is turning away voters. He will have to tone down those remarks in the future and direct his anger at the Republicans instead.

I’ve thought for about a month now that the Democratic nomination will eventually be fought out between Dean and Clark. I don’t think we will get run of the mill Capitol Hill politician as the nominee this time around. Voters seem to be saying they want someone different and unconventional. If I have been surprised lately it is how quickly Wes Clark is catching up in the polls after having been drubbed down to near the back of the pack after his initial fast start. His campaign has finally come together. He is generating serious money from a large network of supporters. This is causing the Dean campaign to look over its shoulders in worry. Although Dean is still ahead in New Hampshire, I would not be surprised if Clark ultimately wins in New Hampshire. New Hampshire has a history of loving mavericks, as it did in 2000 when it picked John McCain over George W. Bush. But it likes conservative mavericks more than liberal mavericks. Although Dean is really a centrist, Clark is perceived as a centrist and that may be the critical factor in New Hampshire.

Once the nominee is decided then the real battle for the general election begins. It will be a tough campaign for Democrats to win, but it could easily swing either way based on a number of topical issues, such as the ever-present U.S. economy or happenings in Iraq. As much as I like Dean, I tend to agree with the Clark people that Clark has better odds of fairing better against Bush on national security issues in the general election. So if Clark wins the nomination I won’t shed too many tears for Dean. I could back Clark enthusiastically. He just seems a bit suspicious to me because he only recently became a Democrat. I don’t know where his heart really lies.

Clearly the election will be fought over two issues: national security and the economy. On the national security issue Bush will appear to have the advantage, but either Clark or Dean are smart enough to know how to expose the fraud that is our war in Iraq. Clark is more likely to pick off Southern states for the Democrats. But I am dubious that the Democrats need the South to win this time. Based on the popular vote in 2000 we didn’t need the south, except Florida. If we can hold what we won in 2000 and pick up a couple states we can win the election. Bush is beatable. So don’t give too much credence to polls this far out from the election. The vast majority of Americans can’t yet name a single Democratic candidate for president.

The best issue for the Democrats on the economy will be the large net job loss (likely to exceed two million jobs) during Bush’s term. He will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to have a net job loss in his term, and it’s hard to see how that will work to his advantage. Numbers like the December employment statistics (where jobs grew by only 1000 jobs) must make Karl Rove nervous. This appears to be a jobless recovery. The result is a lot of unemployed people competing for the same number of jobs, playing a dispiriting game of musical chairs with each other. Democrats will need to get them to the polls.

I tend to agree with my friend Frank Pierce that the Democrats need to play up the issue of outsourcing. We’ve been outsourcing blue-collar jobs for decades, but outsourcing white-collar jobs is a new phenomenon and troubling for many of us who felt secure with our college degrees. Those who have been outsourced more often than not find themselves making half of their previous income. Democrats need to paint the vision of a nation of clerks working at Wal-Mart if the Republicans stay in charge.

It is a shame the voters won’t focus as much on the federal deficits (which are the largest in history) or Bush’s exorbitant tax cuts for the rich, or the way he is wrecking our environment. Voters as a class seem to care more about short-term than long-term issues. Doubtless the Democrats will leverage them if they can. Of all these issues the federal deficit is the most compelling. Traditionally voters have agreed that the government should live within its means. It is ironic that the Democrats can make the better claim of being the party with a track record on financially responsibility.

Ultimately the Democratic nominee must simply promise more pragmatic and progressive stewardship like Bill Clinton delivered. His was a legacy of real prosperity unmatched in over lives. It should make the difference in many swing states. An appeal to a return to the “Great 90s” might swing the election.

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