Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond

(Centennial Fellow) Oh, what a relief it was when actual voters—normal human beings—began to cast real ballots! After fourteen months of the punditocracy telling us what voters would do, should do, or might do based more on Inside the Beltway vanity, than real insight into the American mind, the people—starting with Iowa and New Hampshire—began to talk back and in doing so left many a prognosticator’s reputation in tatters.

So, what have we learned from the quadrennial process thus far?

First, the Debates have emerged in unprecedented fashion as the central methodology for winnowing candidates. Owing to the national economic crisis and the angst it entails, people are attaching extraordinary importance to the coming election—and rightly so. Accordingly the size of Debate audiences has increased dramatically, thus encouraging sponsors to have more of them.

The Debates have also validated candidates who can think and speak well on their feet. Thus a Newt Gingrich with little money or organization can be competitive simply on the basis of verbal prowess. Conversely a Rick Perry with lots of money and organization can self-destruct simply on the basis of verbal ineptitude.

The Debates pose a great disadvantage for a political party challenging a sitting President. The more candidates on the Debate Stage, the smaller each one appears in comparison to an incumbent ensconced in the historic setting of the White House, and cast in the glamorous role of “Leader of the Free World”.

Anything a challenger says can be dismissed as self–aggrandizing and “tawdry politics”. The President on the other hand can do and say the most blatantly political things while piously claiming to be “merely doing his job”.

In this context Republicans are particularly vulnerable since the Debates provide a “target rich” environment for a hostile “Mainstream Media” to denigrate GOP candidates and their beliefs under the guise of “objective analysis”. Just as the media adored the “Maverick” John McCain whenever he criticized the policies of the detested Bush, this year the media trumpeted the moderate virtues of Jon Huntsman as a way to describe all other GOP candidates as “extremists”.

A staple of these exercises is hearing the pundits say how ridiculous it is to grant little states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina such prominent places in this solemn ritual of Democracy. Regularly we hear calls for Regional, or National Primaries despite the obvious defect that either would exclude all but the wealthiest candidates owing to the stupendous amount of money needed for television advertising in such larger jurisdictions.

Oddly enough, the aforementioned three states though small are very different, and in the aggregate they are a reasonable slice of Americana. There is a certain virtue in having candidates spend large amounts of time with small groups of people who can look them in the eye, ask pointed questions, and get some sense of who this person is who wants the most important job in the world.

As the people surveyed the field they frustrated the pollsters by constantly changing their minds. Yet by granting multiple candidates the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame they subjected them to a scrutiny and heat that would eventually melt most of them. Thus did Cain and Bachman disappear, and Gingrich, Santorum and Perry will likely follow soon.

Huntsman said his third place finish in New Hampshire gave him a “Ticket to Ride”, but the mischievous nature of his media fuelled candidacy was revealed by exit polls that showed fully 51% of his supporters approving of Obama’s performance as President. [Editor: Ticket or not, a few days before South Carolinians would go to the polls, Huntsman ended his ride and endorsed Romney.]

The dogged persistence of the quirky Ron Paul is tribute to an enduring streak of Libertarianism in the American electorate and its surprising appeal among young voters suggests it’s not going away. Though he cannot say it Paul has telegraphed rather clearly that his real goal is influence not nomination.

What Mitt Romney understands better than any candidate is that the November election will be decided by those free floating independents in the middle of the political spectrum who decide all Presidential elections. His skillful, though unexciting campaign is built around that fact. Exit polls show that Republican Primary voters prize “electability” above all else. Democrats disingenuously say Romney is the Republican candidate they most want, but all polls and the money the DNC is already spending to trash him, reveal that he is the one who most threatens Obama’s appeal to those independents who elected him four years ago.

Thus have voters not pundits given this race a clarity it heretofore lacked.


William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, Washington Times, Denver Post, and Human Events.

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