Everyone’s second choice
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — The race for the nomination on the Democratic side has been framed as a two-way contest between frontrunner New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and challenger Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Yet former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards could well upset the prognosticators and launch the primary season with a win in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.
The reason Edwards could surprise us is not that he has suddenly won over a majority or even a plurality of Iowa voters. Rather, it’s because he’s everybody’s second choice. Well, not everybody, but enough people that it could make a difference in Iowa’s arcane caucus process. According to a poll by a group called Insider Advantage, Edwards is the second choice of 42 percent of likely caucus-goers who are not supporting the top candidates. For Hillary, that number is 29 percent; for Obama, 28 percent.
Therein lies the rationale for Edwards’ winning Iowa. There are 1,784 caucuses throughout the state on the evening of Jan. 3, a frigid evening because that’s what Iowa weather is like this time of the year. Caucus-goers gather in their designated meeting place, typically a school or community center, at 7 p.m., and if someone arrives even a minute late, they are barred at the door. The rules are strict.
Everybody has to publicly declare for his or her candidate, and if any of the lesser candidates fail to achieve 15 percent of the group that’s come together, their supporters move over the course of the evening to the camp of a stronger candidate, hence the value of being the second choice of caucus-goers who back New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
Edwards has another ace card. He has worked the rural areas of Iowa more consistently and for a longer period of time than the others. The way the Iowa caucuses work, a candidate is not rewarded for piling up votes in Des Moines or other populated areas. Delegates are awarded proportionately, and a handful of voters showing up in a rural polling place pack more punch than those in a big city turnout. That seems undemocratic, and it is, but rural bias is a feature embedded in our system all the way to the top when you consider sparsely populated states like Wyoming and North Dakota are represented in Washington by two senators, putting them on an equal basis with mega-states like California, Texas and New York.
If Edwards wins Iowa, he has still got an uphill race. The assumption is that Hillary could dispatch with him in New Hampshire where he’s running a distant third, and where he finished fourth in 2004 after coming out of Iowa as the surprise runner-up to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. If Hillary can’t win Iowa herself, her next best scenario is for Edwards to win. If Obama wins, that would be the biggest news to come out of the state on the Democratic side. The media would anoint Obama the heir apparent, the next John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter. Take your pick, whichever era, whichever personality, they all came out of nowhere in the sense of having little or no Washington experience.
If Hillary wins Iowa after all the reports about her hitting a rough patch, she may be on her way to winning the nomination. If she finishes second or even third, she’s still in the game but a win in New Hampshire becomes a necessity. She can’t lose both early contests and still campaign on the theme of inevitability. Losses in those states would mean the voters have decided that change trumps experience. A vote for Edwards is a compromise between the two choices represented by Hillary and Obama, which is why he could come out of Iowa as a winner.
Published in The Messenger 12.28.07