It really is déjà vu all over again for me. I am pretty sure we have been here before. So why are the media and everyone else acting like it’s the first time?
Every four years the same things happen. Some candidates compete in Iowa and New Hampshire and some don’t. There is a huge build up to Iowa, even though at the end of the day only a few of the major contenders are competing there. They pick the safe, conservative, strong-family, candidate, who sometimes isn’t the national frontrunner. Everyone acts shocked. Then they scramble to explain what might have happened – even though it is the same thing that happens every four years. Tom Harkin won Iowa for the Democrats in 1992 and Dick Gephardt in 1988. Bob Dole won for the Republicans in 1988 and in 1996 when and barely won there over Pat Robertson, who subsequently won New Hampshire, when Dole went on to become the nominee.
Then we are off to New Hampshire where another candidate is up in the polls. It is the non-traditional candidate. Shocker. The people of “Give Me Liberty of Give Me Death” are supporting John McCain, for the second time. Does that really surprise people? New Hampshire prides itself on being contrary and independent. Who else are they going to support? The fact that John McCain was able to come back from firing his entire staff and having no money a few months ago – that is news. The fact that he did it in New Hampshire keeps it from being huge news. If he is able to continue it in Michigan, that will be big. If he wins South Carolina, that will be a huge comeback. But, don’t put too much weight on a win in New Hampshire. Keep in perspective that they are his people. He should retire there and be treated to a ticker tape homecoming.
It is also important to note at this point in the process that the only candidates who have ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire and won the presidency, were incumbent presidents.
The conversations are the same every four years too, especially at the top of the ticket. The pundits start to analyze every detail. The candidates who have been leading and getting the most attention are all of a sudden scripted and contrived. Granted part of this comes from candidates trying to protect their lead. But most of it comes from a press corps that is tired of watching the same event for the 5,000th time. By the end of the first week of travel for George W. Bush in the 2000 campaign, most of the press corps had already memorized the stump speech and were tired of it. A disciplined and effective candidate rarely veers from the message. But, after a while that becomes a liability and they are criticized for it. So they try to mix it up and appear less staged. One might even show a little emotion. We all know now how that can turn out.
I had to laugh out loud as I listened to Hillary Clinton insisting that she is change, she has been change, she doesn’t have to bring change. She said she has already made changes and has a record of making changes and will continue that. I wasn’t laughing for the same reason everyone else was though. I was remembering in 2000 insisting to reporters that George W. Bush was the reformer. He had actually enacted reforms in Texas, while McCain just talked about it in the Senate. And I am certain now that people were laughing at me then. Not because it wasn’t true, but because it was funny to see the frontrunning campaign trying to get in front of a snowball rolling downhill. Whether McCain was an actual reformer or not, he had acquired the mantle of reform-minded candidate. And whether Hillary Clinton has actually enacted change or not, Obama is the change candidate for the Democrats. That may not be reality, but it is the reality you are stuck with in primary politics.
From here it actually will get interesting, proving the final lesson I learned in 2000 – while Iowa and New Hampshire are part of the process, they rarely determine the outcome of the election. After today we will have the results from Michigan and Nevada, then South Carolina and Florida. These states will help determine the outcome. If Mitt Romney or Rudy Guiliani wins the nomination, and at this point anything is still possible, they will prove that Iowa and New Hampshire shaped the early race, but did not determine the winner.
Things to watch for now as we get ready for the California primary and some larger and more expensive states on that big Tuesday, February 5: where are candidates putting their money, how much of it is on television and is that moving numbers, where is their staff being moved to and from, how do their organizations in each of the Super Duper Tuesday states react to other state’s results and prepare for voting day. California will play a key role and we will have a front row seat. Everything up to now, we have seen before. But the rest of the schedule is new, anything can happen and we haven’t seen anything yet!