So What Have We Learned?

So Iowa is done, and it’s left all of you out there with lots of questions. Fortunately, I’m always capable of giving answers. Are they the right answers? I didn’t say that. But they are answers, and that makes me just like every other pundit. So to the questions!

So is the Democratic race over?

Not yet. But it could be by Tuesday. If Barack Obama can parlay his Iowa victory into a victory in New Hampshire, it’s done.

Is that likely?

It’s probably 50/50. The Suffolk poll out today has shown Hillary Clinton with a wide lead, 37-25, over Obama. But the Suffolk poll has been a bit of an outlyer throughout its run. I think that the numbers are closer to the Zogby numbers (Clinton 32-26) or Franklin Pierce (Clinton 32-28) or ARG (Clinton 35-31). And frankly, a 4-to-6 point lead should be one Obama can close, especially as New Hampshire is fertile ground for a candidate with independent cred, which Obama oozes. Indeed, Obama could close the gap just by winning over Biden and Dodd supporters.

Well, can’t Hillary Clinton win those supporters, and make her lead prohibitive?


Surely you can't be serious!

I am serious -- but don't call me "Shirley." Hillary Clinton is brilliant and skillful, and she’s got a great organization. And she and that organization made an early decision to run an incumbent-style campaign. Clinton was positioned as the inevitable nominee — she had too much money, too much experience, her husband who also happened to be a former president himself, and the whole party apparatus behind her.

It wasn’t a bad strategy for the candidate to adopt. Indeed, it’s the strategy most incumbents use, and it usually works. When your candidate is a known quantity running against unknown quantities, it’s often just enough to establish your position and hold it.

Clinton doesn’t have the sort of charisma that Obama has, but she’s competent and careful, and certainly engaging. And she did raise a boatload of money from the usual suspects. And a good 35-40 percent of the party dutifully lined up behind her.

But running as the inevitable candidate has its drawbacks, and the big one is that it’s an inherently defensive position to run from. You have to keep other candidates from chipping away at your lead. You’re not running a campaign that brings in new voters, or convinces others that you’re a new, fresh force. You’re just trying to hang on to your supporters.

The problem is that when you’re running with this strategy, you’re in big trouble if you fall behind. If you line up your supporters from the start, almost by definition anyone not with you is against you. The people backing Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, John Edwards, and Barack Obama had the chance to back Hillary Clinton a year ago. They’ve already considered and rejected her.

Now, Clinton is still in decent shape. She leads in the national polls, and she was well-positioned in the Super-Duper Tuesday states before Iowa. But…that was before Iowa. And before candidates started to drop. And before Obama proved he can beat her. And before Obama established himself as the primary foil to Clinton (sorry, John Edwards, but it’s true). It’s not over for Hillary. But she’s going to be hard-pressed to win New Hampshire and South Carolina, and if she loses both, then inevitability takes over for Obama.

You dismissed John Edwards pretty easily there. Why?

Because he’s done. Look, I really like John Edwards, and he’s been a really positive force in this campaign. But he had to win Iowa to propel him. Clinton’s leading Obama narrowly in the next few states, but Edwards is 15 points back in New Hampshire, 25 points back in Nevada, and 20 points back in South Carolina. He’s not going to close those gaps with a narrow second-place finish in Iowa, where he’s been effectively running for the past six years. I would be very surprised if Edwards continues on past South Carolina — which would be another blow to Clinton, as most Edwards supporters will gravitate to Obama.

Can Bill Richardson do anything?

Nope. He’s toast. Richardson’s at about 6 percent in New Hampshire, 5 percent in Nevada, and 2 percent in South Carolina. Richardson should do himself a favor and drop out after New Hampshire, as he’s only going to do worse as the race goes on.

You make it sound like Obama’s going to win.

He is. Even if he stumbles in New Hampshire, I think the long-term prospects favor him over Clinton. Hillary has the cash to stay in the race forever, but once Edwards drops, she’s going to be facing insurmountable leads. Obama has shattered Clinton’s sense of inevitability, and once lost, that’s something she can’t get back.

So what about the Republicans?

Tell you what, this post is getting long. We’ll talk about them later.

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