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Hillary Is The Frontrunner. Is That Where She Wants To Be?

Today, most in America who follow these sorts of things would claim that Hillary Clinton is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2008. By that, people tend to mean that she is somehow "in the lead" and therefore, if things remain linear, will be the Democratic nominee.

The trouble with this logic is that the Democratic nomination process is hardly ever linear. Those who are in the lead early are almost never in the lead late. Usually, the nominee is some fella whom nobody saw coming. Consider the years where there is no incumbent, either president or vice-president, seeking the nomination: 1972, 1976, 1984, 1992, 2004.

The first year that the Democrats relied upon the primary system in large measure was 1972. That year, George McGovern pulled off a spectacular comeback victory against Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey. Despite the fact that Nixon was much more afraid of these candidates, they both did poorly among Democratic primary voters.

Jimmy Carter in 1976 was an even bigger darkhorse going into the primary system. Carter was really the first candidate to take advantage of the new, primary-dominated landscape, and thus beat "insider" candidates like Birch Bayh, Fred Harris, Henry Jackson and Morris Udall.

In 1992, of course, Bill Clinton was a major underdog -- first behind Mario Cuomo and then (when Cuomo decided not to run) Paul Tsongas. For the first few months of the campaign season, people knew Clinton -- if they knew him at all -- as the scandal-ridden candidate. Somehow, Clinton managed to turn a second place finish in New Hampshire into a victory. The rest is history.

2004 is the most telling example of Democratic non-linearity (they were downright parabolic!). Early on, John Kerry was considered the frontrunner. Then, in the fall of 2003, rank and file Democrats rallied behind Howard Dean. John Kerry's candidacy was declared DOA. But, the same Democrats -- true to form -- abandoned their new frontrunner and rallied behind the old one!

The only exception in this story is 1984. That year, Walter Mondale, who was considered all along the front-runner, did indeed obtain the nomination over Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. Usually, though, Democratic primary voters seem to take a special pleasure in defying the experts and nominating a darkhorse. One might even go so far as to say that being in first in the lead up to the Democratic primary is a severe handicap.

Thus, if you want to correctly predict who will win the Democratic primary -- pick an unlikely candidate and then keep it to yourself, lest your Democratic primary voting friends catch wind that the new conventional wisdom is for that person!

On the other side, the Republicans are as certain as the tides in their nominations of front-runners. Ford, Reagan, Bush, Dole, Bush -- all front-runners. Whoever gets in the lead in the GOP nominating process will have history on his side. Maybe that is why Mitt Romney and Bill Frist are retiring from their current jobs so early.