November 20, 2007

Hillary in ’08 anything but inevitable

Sometimes the shortsightedness of American politics is baffling. Every four years, the election cycle repeats the same ups and downs, and every time we seem to forget it over the subsequent four years. One election staple that we’d all be better off without is the talk of “inevitability.” Hillary Clinton has dominated the polls for so long that you’d think they’re already reinstalling the White House furniture she stole seven years ago. You can imagine how thrilled the Obama and Edwards campaigns have been at the bombardment of biased questions about whether someone else could possibly win the nomination. How quickly we forget the fact that each of the past four presidential elections has seen the word “inevitability” thrown around at various stages of the game—and the fact that in three of those four cases, the inevitable result failed to happen.

In 1992, riding the popularity of the Gulf War, President Bush the Elder seemed on the fast track to reelection—so much so that many prominent Democrats were hesitant to step into the race. An SNL routine from November 1991 featured a debate of would-be Democratic candidates entitled “The Race to Avoid Being the Guy Who Loses to Bush.” Bill Clinton won that race and five years later, Bob Dole couldn’t stop the Clinton machine. By 2000, the Clinton presidency was so popular that Al Gore seemed to be just waiting for Clinton to tag him in. After Karl Rove manipulated a couple of scandals and some elderly people in Florida accidentally punched the chad for Pat Buchanan, we had Bush the Younger. And as late as December 17, 2003, Howard Dean was dominating the polls with 24-percent of the support of Democratic voters. In the same poll, John Kerry had four percent of the support and John Edwards drew two percent.

It wasn’t just the scream that killed Dean’s presidential campaign. What the 2004 election proved is how important the Iowa Caucus has become. Yes, Bill Clinton, who lost Iowa in ’92, instead spent the time fundraising on the advice of staffer Rahm Emmanuel, a current U.S. Congressman and the inspiration for The West Wing’s Josh Lyman. Yet the level of media saturation in ’92 was nothing compared to what it is now. People didn’t even have the Internet back then, let alone Web 2.0. CNN was still semi-respectable. The hype that a victory in Iowa can build is even more important now, and while Hillary Clinton has a hefty lead in the national polls, she, Obama, and Edwards are in a dead heat in Iowa.

There’s something romantic about the notion of a caucus. It’s the closest America gets to Athenian democracy. It’s such a perfect way to throw off all the misconceptions about the presidential race, and it happens every four years. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you lock a bunch of soybean farmers in a room until they determine the next leader of the Free World. Even the poll numbers within Iowa can’t be trusted when you pick a candidate in such a primitive manner.

While losing in Iowa is not necessarily the death knell for a candidate, it can be the ultimate buzzkill for an overrated campaign. On the other side of the coin, success can bring much-needed hype to underappreciated candidates who may be better fits for the job than their poll numbers indicate. Edwards could easily one-up his 2004 resurgence in Iowa and win the caucus outright. Obama may answer the doubters who say he can’t compete with Hillary. We could also see a quality but underappreciated candidate like Bill Richardson or Joe Biden emerge from the peanut gallery.

It’s true that Clinton is a much stronger candidate with a better-run campaign than Dean was, and if anyone can recover from defeat in Iowa, she can. In fact, if she wins Iowa, the perception may be that all the talk of inevitability was justified, in which case she can practically write her name on the ballot for next November. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that we’re still a long way away from Election Day 2008, and that all the speculation is just that until January 14.

The only reason we think the Democratic race is so inevitable is because CNN and Co. have to find something to fill a 24-hour news cycle. Like it or not, though, that coverage will have very little effect on the caucus rooms at the town halls and elementary school cafeterias where the next American president will be chosen.

Ethan Stanislawski is a fourth-year in the College majoring in HIPS.