Posted on January 9, 2008, Printed on January 9, 2008
Americans have long complained they don't get a chance to pick their presidential candidates after Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primaries. This year will be different. For both parties, but especially for Democrats, the nominee will not be chosen until at least February 5th, when 22 states and Democrats abroad vote.
In the interim, there will be four more weeks of intense campaigning and scrutiny, especially as the Clinton and Obama campaigns jockey for front-runner status, as the Clinton campaign retools and focuses on big states, as the Obama campaign takes lessons from its narrow loss in New Hampshire, and as the Edwards and Richardson campaigns make final attempts to win in close-to-home states -- Nevada and South Carolina -- and shape the debate.
Clinton's razor-thin victory in New Hampshire was a surprise only because the pollsters were so out of touch with the voters -- off by 10-15 points in a number of instances. But New Hampshire is a state where Hillary was long favored and had much of the Democratic party establishment backing her. New Hampsphire was always the place for the "comeback kid scenario," reprising Bill Clinton's experience in 1992, when he came in second to Paul Tsongas.
One of the problems for Obama was that he had two candidates to fight with. Bill Clinton, who is popular in the state, went after Obama with a surprising ferocity, as did the Clinton camp as a whole. As Arianna Huffington documents, they threw everything at Obama but the kitchen sink in the last few days: "So now Hillary's sputtering campaign strategy has shifted to telling voters, 'Whatever you don't like, that's what Obama is.' Clinton and her surrogates are attacking from every direction, hoping something will stick. The attacks are as varied as they are contemptible. ... Put on your galoshes, the mud is mighty thick."
Obama's New Hampshire staff, in contrast, made some mistakes, focusing on canvassing and calling voters in the final days instead of increasing visibility with supporters on the street holding signs. Pollsters were reminded that some whites who say they will vote for an African-American candidate do not follow through. In some locations, there were problems with voting machines; however, Obama campaign insiders did not feel they affected the outcome.
New Hampshire, like Iowa, had record voter turnout. That growing public engagement will encounter a political fight where, increasingly, the gloves will come off. The broad questions in the Democratic debate -- Obama's message of inclusiveness and hope versus Clinton's emphasis on toughness and experience -- will only sharpen. The shine and gloom will come off both of the leading candidates and, hopefully, the party's ultimate nominee will be better for it.
As the contests move state by state, what can progressives expect? Interviews with contacts on the campaigns and in progressive groups on Tuesday night offered these tidbits:
Michigan -- The state's primary is January 15, and only Hillary Clinton and Dennis Kucinich will be on the ballot. That is because the Democratic National Committee penalized the state for moving its primary up and stripped it of delegates. The Kucinich campaign will likely use the contest to put impeachment on the map, said one leading progressive organizer with ties to the candidate.
Nevada -- The DNC sanctioned its contest on Saturday, January 19, to give labor and Latinos a bigger voice in the primary process. The Nevada vote comes down to winning Las Vegas, which has two-thirds of the state's population and arguably is the strongest union city in America. A well-placed contact on the Obama campaign said "the union endorsement is a lock," probably referring to the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which is the city's best-organized union. The former grassroots organizer visited the union's headquarters six times in recent months.
Before Clinton's victory was announced on Tuesday night, anti-nuclear activists and anti-free trade activists said they were not about to give the Obama campaign a pass. One group was planning to send 100 activists to the state to underscore Obama's support for nuclear power. Obama's home state, Illinois, has many nuclear power plants. Another group said it would emphasize Obama's support for free trade, a sensitive topic for unions. They're hoping the Edwards campaign will join these efforts.
Before Clinton's New Hampshire victory, there were rumors her campaign would bypass Nevada and the South Carolina primary the following week and focus on Florida, which comes just days before the February 5 vote in 22 states. But progressive organizers in Nevada who know the Clinton campaign staffers say they are shrewd, capable and not to be written off.
South Carolina -- The DNC also moved this primary up to Saturday, January 26, to enable the state's sizable African-American population to have a say early in the process. Obama has cut into Clinton's lead in recent months, according to polls; however, his loss in New Hampshire undermines the assumption that state would be "a walk in the park," as one Obama insider optimistically said before Tuesday's vote count. Slowing Obama a few days before Florida's primary -- and before the big February 5 vote -- could give the Clinton campaign the boost that it is seeking going into that day's 22-state contest.
Florida -- The DNC also stripped the state of all its delegates because it moved its primary to Saturday, January 26, ahead of the February 5 vote. However, one progressive organizer said the Clinton campaign will be putting a lot of effort into winning the state, because, even with its symbolic vote, it will create momentum as nearly half the country votes three days later.
The New Hampshire primary is not the end of the process, but the true beginning of the second round -- one where Democrats will get a second chance to take a close look at their eventual nominee. They'll see if the glow surrounding the Obama campaign can hold up under closer scrutiny, just as they will see if the Clinton campaign can truly revive itself.
The weeks ahead will also give John Edwards and Bill Richardson a final chance to make their cases, and hopefully remind the other candidates how the party has a notable constituency for what are often characterized as 'liberal' positions.