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The Fatal Delusion

Saturday, December 15, 2007
Sorry everybody, but with the presidential nomination contests in their last month, I'm obsessed.

I've always been very interested in the dynamics of campaign strategy, because I think policy is boring, but because I think strategy is fascinating. And I keep noticing that journalists and even some political operatives think candidates can "skip" the first few primaries and still be competitive for the nomination. Both Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani have been running around for months saying that they can lose Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina and still be the frontrunner because they have huge leads on the February 5 mega-tuesday primaries. With their typical vapidity, pundits have written that if Barack or Romney sweep the early states, they'll "have a chance" at toppling the national frontrunners. The most egregious example of this treatment right now is Florida, which both Clinton and Giuliani have been treating as a "firewall" - where they have a huge lead that will act to break any momentum by their rivals and secure them victory going into February 5's national primary day.

To which I say: what a bunch of hooey.

There are instances in which a strategy of delay (waiting for another state) will help, but only when there is a pronounced difference between the early and late primaries' constituencies. So for example Al Gore in 1988 skipped the early primaries and focused on the southern states in the old Super Tuesday, and was a reasonable candidate for the nomination in that year - although not for long. Similarly, John McCain skipped Iowa in 2000 to focus on New Hampshire, winning it and becoming a serious rival to George Bush - for about a week until South Carolina killed him. New Hampshire has a very different political character than Iowa, and in 1988 there still was such a thing as Southern Democrats.

The fact is that the value of later primaries are discounted at a steady rate as time goes on, a tendency magnified by front-loading. A lead in a later state will wilt under the glare of earlier defeats. Iowa is the most important by far, since it's first. New Hampshire still has a lot of independence, so a candidate can skip Iowa and get away with it - but not so easily as they used to. And then there's South Carolina, a southern state with all the idiosyncrasies that brings. But by that point you've had the Midwest, Northeast, and South all make their voices heard - which represents most of the basic constituent regions in the country, haven't you?

Florida is fool's gold. It has no one distinct political identity, and hence no real ability to fend off the momentum coming into it that is generated by 2-3 previous wins. This is why Florida ALWAYS votes for whoever has the political momentum going into it. A quick list of Florida winners

1976: Jimmy Carter (coming off wins in IA and NH), Ford (win in NH)
1980: Jimmy Carter (IA and NH), Reagan (NH)
1984: Hart (NH)
1988: Dukakis (NH), Bush (NH)
1992: Clinton (GA)
1996: Dole (IA)
2000: Gore (IA and NH), Bush (SC)
2004: Kerry (IA and NH)

Get the picture? Heck, the state went to the winner of New Hampshire in most cases, but in every instance Florida supported a candidate that had won one of the early primaries. In all but once case (1996), the candidate had won the major contested primary immediately previous to it. I would argue that Dole's win was kind of a special case, since he was competing with 2 essentially fringe candidates (Forbes and Buchanan).

So let me gaze into my crystal ball and give you a prediction. If Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani lose Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, then he or she will be defeated in Florida and crushed on Mega Tuesday. Three straight defeats emblazoned in the national media will brand either of them "losers", and nobody wants to vote for one of those.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:43 AM
  • Um, yes and no. You are absolutely correct that it is very stupid to write off IA and NH and expect to win the big states. However, it is equally stupid to expect that a win in IA and NH automatically mean wins in the big states. The problem is that your analysis, as sound as it is, is based on old political rules. Rule 1: People vote for electoral viability (the bandwagon effect) after IA, NH, and SC. Rule 2: Candidates have "momentum" after winning the early primaries and therefore sweep the big states on Super Tuesday because of positive media coverage.

    We won't know what the new rules are until after Feb. 5, but I am willing to bet that electoral viability will not be among them. Since 2008 is the first open race for both parties in 80 years, there is no concrete candidate to beat. The most that each party can do is select candidates based on their prospective ability to defeat a generic opposition. However, other than Clinton vs. Giuliani (which would be a nasty, negative campaign that would turn everyone off), we really don't know what Obama vs. McCain, or Edwards vs. Huckabee, or Clinton vs. Romney would look like. Thus electoral viability is very fuzzy, and that's why Huckabee is rising in the polls on the Republican side. The idea of "momentum" is equally fuzzy because it is something manufactured solely by the mainstream press. Last time I checked, the MSM were comletely clueless about the issues that matter to most people and the candidates who are most appealing. Hardly anyone except aging baby boomers watches network television anymore.

    So, as far as I am concerned, all bets are off for 2008. We know that a Democrat will win, but that's all we know.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 8:59 PM  
  • Well, my analysis is based on 1) the structure of the nomination system, and 2) the behavior of voters and press. Given that there hasn't been any substantial difference in either category, I don't see why we should expect dramatically different results than in the past. The sequential nature of the process has created a clear pattern that has held up since the 1976 race. Why should we expect it to be different now?

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 8:29 AM  
  • The structure of the nomination system has been changed by squeezing the dates together and challenging the legitimacy of major states (Florida and Michigan). Voters are behaving different as evidenced by the early interest in the presidential race. The press has not changed its behavior, but the influence of the press has also been minimized.

    However, the question is whether these are differences in degree or differences in kind. If in degree, the outcome should follow the old logic. If in kind, we will see a different dynamic produce a result by Feb. 5.

    So let's resume this discussion on Feb. 6.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 1:37 AM  
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