In early 2004, many of us were bemused at how quickly the Democratic presidential nomination was settled. John Kerry, almost an afterthought through the first few weeks of January of that year, was the all-but-assured standard-bearer for his party less than two weeks after the Iowa caucuses. This had been the intention of the Democratic National Committee: determine the nominee early, allowing the party to save money and resources and emerge without bad blood or inevitable intra-party attacks that the Republicans could then use in the fall. But it also served to elevate a candidate who had not been as politically battle-tested as he should have been, and it reinforced the suspicion that money (Kerry had opted out of the public financing system and used his own sizable family resources to fund his campaign) and organization were largely decisive in settling the race.
As Democrats conducted their quadrennial reconsideration of the nominating process, they concluded--not wrongly, IMO--that part of the problem was giving Iowa and New Hampshire, the two early-voting states that don't reflect the national electorate in terms of demographics or priorities, so much weight in the process. So they agreed to move up Nevada, a western state with many Hispanic voters and a large union presence, and South Carolina, which has a large percentage of African-Americans among its Democratic electorate.
Then all hell broke loose. It now seems likely that California, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey will move their primaries to February 5, two weeks after Iowa, one week after New Hampshire. They will join, and totally overshadow, a half-dozen or so smaller states set to vote that day.
There's debate about what this will mean--whether it will make the first four states more important, by virtue of giving one candidate momentum heading into the quasi-national Feb. 5 primary, or less, given how many more votes and delegates will be at stake that day and how much more focus will be on those states, which include or border on a majority of the biggest media markets in the country. But what I think is undeniable is that the front-loading of the calendar gives a big advantage to the candidates with the name recognition and bank account to fight hard out of the gate for those Big Four. Right now, that's Hillary Clinton and John McCain. And their campaign managers can hardly stop themselves from blurting this out:
Associates of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the New York Democrat, and Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, said that should either of them stumble early on, the respective party primaries in California and New Jersey — two states that would seem particularly hospitable to them — could offer an expensive but welcome firewall.
“I think this is huge,” said John Weaver, a senior adviser to Mr. McCain. “And the unintended consequences could be even bigger.”
“We don’t set the calendar, and we don’t control the calendar, but we are going to compete aggressively in all these states,” said Patti Solis Doyle, who is the manager of Mrs. Clinton’s exploratory presidential effort. “And I will also tell you we have the resources and the organization to compete in all those states.”
If you're one of the many, many Democrats who doesn't want Hillary, or one of the many, many Republicans who doesn't want McCain, this front-loading is bad news, and the process it will create seems directly counter to how the last two presidents seized their parties' nominations.
The Democrats' Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in 1992 didn't mean that much because favorite sons were in play: Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin won his home state almost uncontested, and former Sen. Paul Tsongas (of neighboring Massachusetts) took New Hampshire. Clinton needed more time to break through; had 10 or 12 states gone to the polls immediately after his place/show finishes in the first two races, who knows if he would have gotten it. In 2000, meanwhile, John McCain stomped Bush in NH and almost immediately pulled even in South Carolina, where the next vote was set... but Bush had three weeks before that primary to bring his campaign strengths--unlimited money and unlimited willingness to smear McCain--to bear.
I think that of the two parties and presumptive front-runners, Hillary Clinton gets more of an advantage than does McCain--whom I increasingly believe will plummet into the ever-widening gap between his "Straight Talk" persona and his relentless far-right pandering (which today included a vote against the minimum wage). This should scare Democrats who particularly want to win the White House, given this note from Charlie Cook:
Among Democrats who knew enough to rate the candidates, 74 percent said they were enthusiastic or comfortable with Edwards and Obama, compared with 71 percent for Clinton and 39 percent for Biden.
When it comes to the candidate voters simply cannot support, Clinton tops the field with 46 percent, followed by Edwards with 32 percent, Giuliani at 26 percent, Biden and McCain at 25 percent each, Obama at 23 percent, Romney at 19 percent and Brownback at 17 percent.
46 PERCENT. That's pretty close to half the country, a far larger chunk of the electorate to write off from the jump than any other Democrat, and twice as much as Barack Obama. And this isn't someone who can reintroduce herself, or pander her way to greater acceptance; people know who she is, and they know they think she is.
So anti-Hillary Democrats who figured they might have two shots to take down Our Lady of Perpetual Triangulation--before the primaries began, and after the race narrowed to Hillary vs. Not-Hillary--have to reconsider their options. The race is being decided now; we might know who the nominee is by the end of 2007, with the first four primaries as confirmation, the Feb. 5 delegananza as coronation, and the remaining five months to the Democratic Convention set aside for a crushing case of buyer's remorse. If an alternative is to be found, it probably has to be now.