08/06/2007 04:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A First Look At The Early Primaries

Much like the Iraqi Parliament, our own Congress has just departed on their own month-long vacation. So begins the dog days of summer political news. Which means it's a good time to take a look at next year's presidential primaries -- now only five months away.

On the Democratic side, there is a wealth of good candidates to choose from. Even the longshots and dark horses look pretty good at this point. On the Republican side, there is much consternation over their choice of candidates. Republicans are going through the same agonizing choice that Democrats faced in 2004: which candidate will be the most "electable" come next November? This triangulation, in essence, concedes that you will be running an "underdog" campaign, admitting that the other side's candidate will be stronger. This, it should be noted, didn't exactly work out real well for Democrats in '04.

Looking at the polling data for the early primary states (Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida) shows how volatile a race it is shaping up to be, in both parties. Looking at national polling shows clear frontrunners, but when you dig into the state data, things get cloudier. State polls can be seen at

Muddying the waters even further (on the Democratic side) is the fact that most polls only collect data from "likely voters," or voters who answer "yes" as to whether they voted in the last election or not. This is usually a better predictor of the final results, but not always. If candidates can pull in a significant amount of votes from people who don't normally vote, they can prove all the pollsters wrong and win unexpected victories (see: Governor Jesse Ventura).

All three frontrunners on the Democratic side could manage to pull this trick off. It's possible, but not probable -- Democrats often lose heartbreaking elections because they are convinced that new voters (college students, the poor, Hispanics... whatever target group) will arrive in droves on election day -- only to be disappointed when (yet again) they don't show up.

Having said that, each of the top three Democrats are indeed targeting new voters, in different categories. Hillary Clinton is heavily targeting single mothers and other young women who usually don't vote. Barack Obama is targeting African Americans (of course) and also young college students who desperately want to believe in someone or something idealistic. John Edwards is targeting poor people, union members of all stripes, and the middle class.

The success of any of these "reach out" efforts remains to be seen. But the fact that each campaign is aware of the possibility means that the standard polls may not be as good a measure of the electorate as usual. Which means I can freely suppose upset victories that might not actually happen. [OK, truth be told, it's just more fun to look at it this way.]


State by state wrap-up

First out of the chute is the Iowa caucus. Farmers traipse miles in the snow in order to sit around with their caucus and try to browbeat each other to death. In 99 counties. It's a messy process, but direct democracy always is. The polls for Iowa are pretty tough to read. John Edwards has been leading the polls here for quite some time, but by an increasingly thin margin. The most recent polls show, essentially, a three-way tie. So Iowa is completely up for grabs, and looks to be a close race no matter who wins. The race for the number two spot here could be more important, as "the winner" may not be as important as "the loser" in public perception.

Nevada is the forgotten state in the Democratic primary. On Meet The Press a week ago there was a lively discussion of all the primaries and their importance, complete with predictions for both parties' candidates -- and Nevada wasn't mentioned once. Tough beans, Silver Staters. What is especially disheartening about this is the fact that the Nevada caucuses were moved up specifically to give Hispanics a voice in choosing the nominee, and they're being almost totally ignored. Because of this media indifference, polling in Nevada is harder to find than in the other early states. The latest polls show Clinton in first place, with Edwards and Obama roughly tied for second.

New Hampshire is the first primary, and the citizens of New Hampshire (all twenty-two of them) get overwhelming media coverage as a result. [Just kidding, Granite Staters! There are actually 1.3 million people in the state.] Clinton has been running very strong in New Hampshire, but Obama has been closing ground rapidly, meaning that they are pretty much neck-and-neck for first place here. Edwards is polling a distant third.

South Carolina was going to be the state to gauge African-American voters' opinions on the candidates, but it may be overshadowed by Florida, which muscled its way onto the same day -- and which has a lot more delegates. South Carolina so far is shaping up to be the same as New Hampshire -- Clinton and Obama tied for first, Edwards in third. Losing South Carolina may not be all that big an event for Edwards in the national race, but it's gotta hurt on a personal level, as he was born in the state.

Florida seems to be the one state where the national polls are reflected fairly accurately by the state polls. Hillary is on top, Obama runs behind, and Edwards runs a distant third. So this may be the one state where the conventional wisdom plays out.


So having taken a bird's eye view of each state, allow me to concoct five scenarios. At this point, it is too early for me to even lay odds on which of these will happen, but feel free to do so amongst yourselves.


(1) The Clinton-lover's scenario

John Edwards wins Iowa, but Hillary comes in second by a razor-thin margin. Obama is third, behind by four or five points. Clinton then goes on to win Nevada and New Hampshire. Barack wins South Carolina, but Clinton decisively wins Florida. She enters Super-Duper-Tsunami-Tuesday (or whatever they decide to call it -- for now it shall be known as "SDTT") with three victories, and two "close seconds." On SDTT, she gains enough delegates to declare herself the unbeatable winner.


(2) The Obama-lover's scenario

John Edwards wins Iowa, but Obama places second by a razor-thin margin. Clinton is behind by four or five points. Hillary wins Nevada, Obama again places a close second. Hillary makes a blunder or gaffe on the campaign trail, which delights the media so much they run it 5,000 times before New Hampshire votes. Obama wins New Hampshire, South Carolina, and (surprising the punditocracy) Florida. Entering SDTT, Obama has three solid wins and two very close seconds. Obama wraps it up on SDTT.


(3) The Edwards-lover's scenario

Edwards steadily gains ground in Iowa until primary election day. He decisively takes Iowa, by a margin of 5 - 10 points. Under the media's radar, he has built his strong union stance into enormous support in Nevada (there are a lot of SEIU hotel jobs in Nevada). He surprises everyone by taking Nevada, although Hillary comes in a close second. Hillary wins New Hampshire, but with Edwards a very strong second. His campaign becomes the media's new darling, and his face is everywhere in the news. Hillary appears on YouTube, in a cell phone video of her screaming and ranting about Edwards. She immediately sinks in the polls, and Edwards wins both South Carolina and Florida. Entering SDTT with 4 out of 5 wins, Democrats across the county jump on his bandwagon and he wins enough to make his nomination a sure thing.


(4) The Underdog-lover's scenario

A week before the Iowa caucus, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards are photographed having deviant sex in the same bed. The dark horse [fill in your favorite underdog's name] romps home, and sweeps all five early states. Al Gore kicks himself for not jumping in the race when he had a chance. The Dark Horse becomes our next President.

[OK, I'm sorry I'm not taking this one seriously, so if anyone wants to write a more plausible scenario of this happening, I'm willing to listen.]


(5) The Political-junkie's scenario

Results are all over the map. In brief:

IA -- 1. Edwards; 2. Obama; 3. Clinton

NV -- 1. Clinton; 2. Edwards; 3. Obama

NH -- 1. Obama; 2. Clinton; 3. Edwards

SC -- 1. Obama; 2. Edwards; 3. Clinton

FL -- 1. Clinton; 2. Edwards; 3. Obama

Going into SDTT, there is no clear frontrunner. Edwards has one victory, but three second-place finishes. Clinton has two wins, but only one second place. Obama also has two wins, one second place. Because nobody is obviously leading the pack, SDTT shows equally mixed results. This means the later states become the important states in the race, which means some media markets get campaign ads that have never seen them before. But because it is not a two-way race but a true three-way race, there is no majority after the entire campaign. The national convention becomes the place where the candidate actually gets nominated. At this point, all bets are off, as I've written about before.


[The second part of this article, examining which Republican would be best for any Democrat to run against, will appear on tomorrow.]


Chris Weigant blogs at: