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Who Can Go the Distance?

By Steven Stark

So far the media storyline on Campaign 2008 is how extraordinary this year's race has been, with the process dominated by upsets and a renewed call for change.

But as we all know after Tuesday night in New Hampshire, the press was mostly spinning itself.

In fact, so far, 2008 looks like a somewhat conventional year. It's not unusual, on the Democratic side, for an insurgent, outsider candidate to challenge the establishment front-runner -- as Bradley did Gore, Hart did Mondale, and McGovern did Muskie. It's only when there is no establishment front-runner that the process changes, as it did in 2004, 1992, and 1988.

For the record, the renegade usually does quite well in an early state or two. Sometimes he even goes on to win the nomination -- but sometimes he doesn't.

As for the GOP, the usual rule is that the person at the top of the public-opinion polls a year before the primary voting begins goes on to win the nomination. Well, guess who was leading those polls a year ago?

John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, in a virtual tie. It still doesn't look like a terrible bet that the Republican race will come down to those two. And, even if Mike Huckabee makes a run, there are historical antecedents for that, too -- going back to the Goldwater-Rockefeller contest in 1964.

None of this means, of course, that the race will be predictable from here on out. Here are the political questions likely to dominate the campaign over the next few weeks.

DEMOCRATS
1) IS HILLARY CLINTON IN DECENT SHAPE, EVEN IF SHE LOSES SOUTH CAROLINA ON THE 26TH?

Yes. Even with a stuttering start, guess who will be the delegate leader at the end of January?

Clinton.

That's because only a handful of delegates are chosen this month -- and Clinton is doing better than Obama among the super-delegate dignitaries that gain automatic admission to the convention and comprise almost 20 percent of the delegate total. February is when the selection of the convention nominee really begins.

As well as he's doing so far -- and despite his surprise loss in New Hampshire, he's still off to a formidable start -- Obama's problem is that Democrats' delegates are decided proportionally, by congressional district. That means that even if a candidate loses a state by 60-40 percent, he or she still gets 40 percent of the delegates in the primary. If the split is 55-45 percent, sometimes the rules end up splitting the delegate count 50-50.

So both front-runners can keep the delegate count close, even while finishing second in a number of states. But if the race stays tight, as analysts such as Jay Cost have noted, Clinton has a built-in advantage -- due to those super-delegates who are far more likely to support the "establishment" candidate, which is, of course, her. In other words, to win, Obama has to defeat Clinton decisively. A protracted give-and-take primary campaign will likely hand the nomination to Clinton.

2) IS EDWARDS FINISHED?

Sadly, yes, unless he can somehow find a way to win the South Carolina primary. He won it in '04 -- but that was against a far less formidable field. Without a victory in January, his money will dry up and he won't get enough votes on February 5 to continue credibly, no matter whether he formally stays in or not.

Who Edwards's supporters end up backing, by the way, will go a long way toward determining the Democratic nominee. Right now, it's uncertain.

REPUBLICANS
1) WHERE DOES MIKE HUCKABEE GO FROM HERE?

It's unclear. His Iowa victory came largely due to the heavy support he received from evangelicals, and they won't comprise as high a percentage of the GOP electorate elsewhere. Even if he doesn't win Michigan on January 15 or South Carolina on January 19, Huckabee can still survive as a kind of Southern regional candidate for a while, as long as he's finished close to the top in a state or two. But without that Palmetto State victory -- and then some victories up north on February 5 -- he won't be the nominee.

2) IS ROMNEY FINISHED?

Most likely. He can stay in the race as long as he's willing to write checks to himself. But even if he wins Michigan next Tuesday, he's got a long and implausible road back.

3) WILL GIULIANI'S "WAIT UNTIL THE BIG STATES" STRATEGY WORK?

Quite possibly -- we'll know on January 29, when Florida votes. But by the time we get to Florida, Romney and Fred Thompson are likely to be non-factors, and the loser of the South Carolina primary won't be looking great, either. That leaves Giuliani a pretty open field. His problem is that, if McCain is the next-to-last man left, he's a formidable opponent. But a Giuliani victory in Florida, or even in the big states beyond, isn't impossible, particularly if Huckabee can knock off McCain in either Michigan or South Carolina.

4) IS MCCAIN THE FRONT-RUNNER?

Not only is he the front-runner, he has a shot at wrapping up the nomination more quickly than people realize. Admittedly, it's a big "if," but if he can win Michigan next week (he won it in 2000), win South Carolina the next (he has a lot of support there), and beat Giuliani in Florida on the 29th, he will be the last man standing -- even before we get to Super Tuesday. Unlike the Democrats' delegate process, Republicans favor winner-take-all primaries, which tends to bring their races to conclusion faster.

Boston Phoenix


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