Every year we are all greatly annoyed by the question trotted out by commentators anxious to display their savviness. "Do you think there will be a brokered convention and they will choose (usually noncandidate) X? This year the beneficiary of these questions is Hillary, but in the past it's been Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley and a host of others.
We've all gone through a number of iterations of the post-Iowa situation. It is fair to say that at this point Dean is still ahead in New Hampshire by 3-8 points, while Kerry and Clark are second in a statistical dead heat, Clark probably marginally ahead.
If Kerry unexpectedly wins, it will be a HUGE media story, largely because the commentariat (based on my viewing of at least four Sunday morning talk shows) has decided that Gephardt and Dean's on the ground advantage is so great that it would be an upset if someone else even came in second. If Edwards were to win, the story would only be huger; it would propel him in big ways not only in New Hampshire but, more importantly, in South Carolina and other February 3 states that have barely heard of him but where he might be appealing: Oklahoma and North Dakota, to start with.
Either of these scenarios assumes a Gephardt loss in Iowa, which would lead to his departure from the race (He will probably depart after New Hampshire either way unless he wants to have a last moment of glory in Missouri.). Where will his support go? If Dean doesn't win Iowa, Gephardt's support will go to Edwards, Clark and Kerry. The dynamics of the presidential race have changed profoundly in the last three months; half of Dean's appeal to unions stemmed from his inevitability. His personal appeal to union members will certainly not outmatch Kerry's, Clark's or Edwards'.
In short, at this point Dean's candidacy is dependent on winning Iowa and New Hampshire. A loss in Iowa (particularly to Kerry) could lead to a loss in New Hampshire. A loss in both will end his candidacy; he will not compete will in South Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma; his relatively high polling in some of states is largely about name recognition. One or two new faces with massive media exposure, one of whom is certain to be a veteran, and one of whom is likely to be a Southerner, will defeat him handily when the race leaves the Northeast.
And here's the thing: everybody knows it. At this point, February 3 will be competitive even if Dean wins both Iowa and New Hampshire because inevitability was his greatest advantage. Dean will not be the nominee unless he wins most of those states. His only chance for that happening is for the field to be spread as thinly as possible. He needs a four car pileup in New Hampshire and in Iowa. At this point, that is his only chance. In a competitive race, he is unlikely to get more than 30% of the vote.
But here's the thing, and this takes us back to the annoying initial question. Democrats have a PR system. It is mathematically possible for a candidate to win all 50 states with 30% of the vote in a four-way race (and I haven't even gotten to Sharpton). But that will still only leave you with 30% of the vote. In the last week, the media has decided (now using Iowa voters as proof, despite only the most marginal proof from Zogby's polling) that Dean is too mean and too superficial to be electable. That (partly) media-fueled perception is probably part of the reason that his candidacy has floundered, and the mutual animosity is such the dynamic is not likely to change. And this is one of the first times one can imagine a convention where a few candidates with possibilities choose to stay in the race till the end. And would it really be such a bad thing for all fifty states to hear Democratic candidates telling the truth about Bush, raising the public consciousness and having a race exciting enough to actually bother voting on? Particularly if every candidate pledges to support the eventual nominee?
Yes, that is an unlikely scenario (tantalizing though it may be for us, not only because we love intelligent public debate by worthy advocates but because I love to see carefully laid structural plans such as Terry McAuliffe's compressed primary schedule demolished by, of all things, voter interest). It is now possible to trace routes to the nomination for four candidates; this seemed inconceivable two weeks ago. While the likelihood is that after New Hampshire we may only be able to do so for three, I am not certain.
The so-called "Nine Dwarves" have given way to four major candidates. They are not giants, not yet anyway. But a funny thing happened this week in Iowa: everyone suddenly begun to think that they could be.
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