THE Iowa State Fair this year boasted a life-size butter sculpture of Harry Potter, a 1,203-pound hog and, in all probability, the next Commander-in-Chief of the world’s only superpower. Nothing typifies the Iowa primaries more than an ambitious politician discussing the intricacies of the Central American Free Trade Agreement while munching on a deep-fried twinky. For all the talk of Obama’s blogging strategy, or Hillary’s national security team, the ability to be at home on a Des Moines farm or in a diner in Nashua, New Hampshire, is far more crucial to a candidate’s campaign than the opinion of the Washington commentariat.
A common refrain among TV anchors and morning show hosts is that the election campaigns seem to start earlier each time. They are not wrong. Ever since John Kerry emerged from his home in Boston’s Beacon Hill to concede the 2004 election to George W. Bush, every politician aiming at making a run in 2008 has been travelling to early-voting states and signing up influential local operatives. John Edwards has been such a consistent visitor that nearly all Iowans seem to have bumped into him at some point, and Republican Tommy Thompson boasted of visiting each of Iowa’s 99 counties before a lack of funding forced him to bow out. Victory in the early primaries provides perhaps the only opportunity for lesser-known and less well-funded candidates to derail the much-anticipated Clinton-Guiliani Battle Royale. After all, it has been done before.
John F. Kennedy was viewed as an unseasoned political naïf when he started trawling the country in 1959 to garner votes among the Democratic electorate. The young pretender was certain to be frustrated in his over-sized political ambitions by the cooler heads of party bosses who favoured either twice-beaten Adlai Stevenson, Senate majority leader Lyndon Baines Johnson, or the Minnesota populism of Hubert Humphrey. By March 1960, the voters of West Virginia were in a position to award the nomination to Kennedy or to back Humphrey and to throw the contest into the hands of power-brokers at the party convention. An early poll predicted that Kennedy would trounce Humphrey, but loyalties quickly changed as county chairs in charge of getting out the vote informed the campaign that “no one knew he was a Catholic” when the poll was taken. However, intense training of precinct leaders, door-to-door canvassing and stumping across the State finally handed victory to Kennedy and set him on the road to the Presidency. An ongoing struggle between party grassroots and Washington ‘Pooh Bahs’ has been waged ever since.
This dynamic has recurred in almost every electoral cycle: hippies got ‘clean for Gene’ as Senator Eugene McCarthy knocked LBJ out of contention in the snows of New Hampshire in 1968; Gary Hart masterminded both a change in party rules and the primary campaign of George McGovern in 1972, as well as his own insurgent run for office 12 years later; Governor Michael Dukakis showcased his ‘miracle in Massachusetts’ all the way to his party’s nomination and a subsequent crushing General Election defeat; and Howard Dean rewrote the rules of modern Presidential campaigning by demonstrating that the governor of a political backwater like Vermont could give the Democratic establishment a collective fright by raising vast sums of money online. Some of these radical approaches ended in failure, but all of them changed the manual of how to run a winning campaign. By focusing on the ins-and-outs of Bill Clinton’s schedule, or why Giuliani’s son refuses to campaign for his father, most newspapers are missing the emerging strategies that will define this race.
Most polls in Iowa show John Edwards leading the more established campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Some data has Obama in a slight lead in New Hampshire, with the third real test in South Carolina appearing to be a three-way tie. If Obama or Edwards can win two out of these three states by organising enough precinct captains, attending all of the state fairs, union meetings and party dinners, and generating enough political momentum, then they could each increase both their cash on hand and national poll ratings to compete in the crucial ‘Super Tuesday’ primaries on February 5th, when as many as 16 states – including the big media markets of California, New York and New Jersey – are due to pick their candidate. Whilst Hillary could strangle opposition with early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, Obama and Edwards will try and make up the gap in perception of competence and raise doubts about Hillary’s electability in a General Election, as well as playing up to the prejudices of Democratic activists.
While Obama and Edwards compete with each other to emerge as the anti-Hillary, Rudy Guiliani has been hoping to tie up the Republican nomination. His 9/11 ‘heroics’, tough-guy persona and pipeline to Wall Street gave him an initial aura of invincibility, only to be undermined by lacklustre organisation in early states, dubious credibility with socially conservative voters (thanks to ‘liberal’ views on abortion and gay rights, and a turbulent private life), and the threat of a political ‘swift-boating’ from those who highlight his tendency for spending more time at Yankees games than at Ground Zero. The likely beneficiary is a Mormon ex-governor of liberal ‘Taxachusetts’, who has evolved from a Boston moderate in favour of gay rights and abortion rights to a conservative with the ‘correct’ positions on hot-button issues like immigration, abortion and taxation in time for the Republican primaries.
Mitt Romney leads in polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. His time as head of private equity firm Bain Capital offers him a hotline to big party donors, and his team is well-organised, as demonstrated by his win in Iowa’s ‘straw poll’ vote. Moreover, Romney message is focused and his delivery is polished – he even has presidential hair. Perennial Democratic presidential consultant Bob Shrum recounts in his recent memoir how Senator Ted Kennedy only just warded off the challenge of a young Romney because Democrats focused on the healthcare record of companies that Bain Capital had bought when Romney was in charge. When he became governor a few years later, Romney closed this chink in his armour by extending universal healthcare to all residents of Massachusetts. If Romney can score early victories in the campaign, then he would make a formidable Presidential candidate, especially against Hillary Clinton, who – according to the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato – 43-46% of Americans say they would never consider voting for.
The latest Republican contender to receive sustained media coverage is Fred Thompson. Despite high initial poll ratings, the ex-Senator from Tennessee will struggle to establish a top-class field operation at this relatively late stage. His fundraising figures have disappointed backers, and his record as a senator is poor. While a candidate with Hollywood glitz – Thompson was a star in Law and Order and films such as The Hunt for Red October – and a conservative voting record invites comparisons with Ronald Reagan, Thompson is more likely to finish like the last resume-blessed belated entrant to a Presidential race: General Wesley Clark.
Despite the myopic coverage and established wisdom from Washington, the familiar story of ‘grassroots versus grandees’ is re-establishing itself slowly but surely. What the miners and town square meetings did for one politician from Massachusetts in West Virginia 47 years ago, a life-size butter Harry Potter and 1,203-pound hog might eventually do for another in 2008. One thing is for certain – we can’t say that we weren’t warned.