It was a bad night for Hillary Clinton haters in New Hampshire. First, the woman that they love to loathe did what they dread most: she won. But that was just the start of their dismal night. She held two powerful constituencies together: older women voters and core Democrats. They, not the much overblown independents, are the true ticket to the Democratic presidential nomination and beyond that the White House. The night got even worse for them. The big smile on Clinton's face told why. It wasn't a gloat or an I-told-you-so, the smile was a visceral and defiant expression of a rejuvenated and even more ready to do battle Clinton. The night sunk finally into the pits for the haters who had glibly and gloatingly assured one and all that Barack Obama would steamroll Clinton in New Hampshire and beyond.
Predicting inevitability is a terrible burden to dump on the shoulders of a novice presidential contender who is still at the very front of the learning curve on foreign and national domestic policy issues, talks of hope and change but is vague on just what that hope and change will be, and is still pounding out a program on health care, education, tax policy, not to mention trying to figure out what and how to get us out of Iraq.
The Hillary haters got another hard lesson in American realpolitik in New Hampshire. It's risky, no dangerous, to predict a knockout of a seasoned political fighter before the first bell even sounds. That was pretty much what they did. But they forgot many things about Clinton and the campaign. Obama had won a grand total of one state, Iowa, and even that was less than met the eye. Iowa is a mildly Democratic leaning state, with a strong independent, even contrarian tradition among many voters.
Nominations, let alone, presidential contests are seldom won based on a candidate's showing in one state, or even a handful of early primary states. There have been countless examples in recent presidential campaigns where a candidate has won big in some states, and then lost the nomination. One example is Jesse Jackson. He, not Obama, has won more state primaries than any other black presidential candidate in 1988. Yet, Jackson's candidacy ultimately floundered over the course of a long and grueling campaign. New Hampshire, not Iowa, was the first true primary state where the popular vote, party loyalties, and a candidate's campaign savvy can be measured and tested.
Clinton knows what Obama has discovered, and her legion of loathers are to blind to see, and that's that elections are won not in early popularity polls, but in tough, gritty work in the state party caucuses, recruiting crack field organizers, and dedicated volunteers. Voters elect presidents that they feel will do three things: bring stability, strength, and experience to the top spot.
In every poll, and that includes the ones that have shown Obama gaping Clinton in popularity and likeability, voters give her top marks on experience and strength (They still give Obama short shrift on both). That's another way of saying that they don't want someone in the White House that will stumble and bumble on policy issues. Bush was elected and re-elected precisely because voters got conned into thinking that they were putting a guy in and back in the White House who was tough and experienced and would not fall on his face on policy issues. They were terribly wrong. Core Democrats won't make that mistake again.
Then there's the issue of constituency strength, or more particularly, who can do the best job in identifying where their strength is and corralling it. The 2008 presidential race will come down to a showdown in Florida, several of the key Western states, and the ability to unhinge one or two Southern states out of the GOP orbit. Victories in these states can seal the White House for the Democrats. Democrats won none of them in 2000 and 2004. The key to snaring those states require a big turnout from core Democrats, women, Latinos and blacks. Clinton divvies up the black vote with Obama and beats him handily with older women, core Democrats, and Latinos in those states.
Obama did well enough in New Hampshire. He handily won the independent vote and the youth vote (although they voted in far less numbers than expected, and that's not a good sign either for the candidate that banks on riding the crest of young voters to the nomination). But it's Democrats, lots of them, that seal nominations and potentially elect presidents. New Hampshire taught the Hillary haters that, and in the process tarnished the myth of Obama inevitability. It was truly a richly deserved bad night for Hillary haters in New Hampshire.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book The Ethnic Presidency: How Race decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).