January 04, 2008

Iowa Tealeaves

It is difficult to read the results of the Iowa Caucuses last night with any precision. On the Democratic side Obama has been strengthened, on the Republican side Romney has been weakened. It may be that Obama is heading now to New Hampshire, a possible win in South Carolina and the nomination- but there are many slips ahead. As for Mike Huckabee- it should never be forgotten that in 1988 Iowa was won by Pat Robertson and that Huckabee will be significantly weaker in New Hampshire than he was in the midwest. Having said all of that, I do think that the results in Iowa are interesting- in particular four results are interesting, firstly the fact that Obama and Edwards beat Clinton, secondly that Huckabee beat Romney, thirdly that Ron Paul got double the vote of Rudi Giuliani and fourthly that on the Democratic side of the aisle the minor candidates were not merely blasted away, they were wiped out.

What does that mean? Well the last piece of information tells us something very interesting- personal charisma mattered in Iowa more than personal politics did. A good communicator with a good CV like Biden or Dodd was flattened as the Democratic caucus goers sought the established candidates. Furthermore the large turnout in the Democratic party meant that the minnows were effectively destroyed and flung out of the race- in the Democratic party established figures lost to media figures- something that you would expect in a race largely driven by independents (who voted overwhelmingly for Obama) and young people (ditto). Media momentum must lie behind Ron Paul's 10% as well- which ecclipsed Mr Giuliani's 4%- but behind that lies the other and perhaps more interesting story of the primary.

The victors of this primary were the populists. On both sides of the aisle, populists triumphed over establishment candidates. On the Democratic side, John Edwards had a good showing- though possibly not enough to keep him alive. On the Republican side though we saw something fascinating. Because there was no perfect conservative candidate running- none of the alternatives looks particularly appetising to most conservatives- you saw the conservative coalition splinter. Huckabee's victory reinforces the old historical trend that the Midwest supports populists and actually reinforces to me the idea that this could become a new battleground in American politics- where the politics of John Edwards and the politics of Mike Huckabee contest states like Iowa and Montana and all the rest. In a sense the lesson of Iowa is a lesson about the retreat of Republican orthodoxy into the south. But its also a lesson about the functioning of American politics- part of what drives the Huckabee campaign is class. Huckabee appeals on the basis of class and social morality- in that sense he is a warning shot to both parties because he undercuts both of their traditional coalitions. Ron Paul likewise is in the position of mounting an insurgency particularly against the war in Iraq- again the isolationist impulse in American politics should never be underrated.

Not all states will be as populist as Iowa. I'd reckon now if Super Tuesday comes up and Obama maintains this level of support- he is odds on for the nomination. As for the Republican race, its still wide open. But the hint of populism reemerging is an interesting one and perhaps the longest lasting lesson of these events.


Ruthie said...

Here's my prediction:

The Republicans will shoot themselves in the foot one of two ways-- either they'll nominate someone too socially conservative to be palatable to the country as a whole (Thompson, Romney, or Huckabee), or they'll nominate someone too socially liberal to be palatable to most conservative voters (McCain or Giuliani).

If the latter occurs, I'd be willing to bet a third-party candidate with supposedly better "conservative credentials" will splinter the conservative vote and guarantee a Democratic victory.

And I think Obama's going to end up with the Democratic nomination. He seems like a safe bet...