If politics were sports (forgive me for using the most hackneyed cliché to kick this off), then the 2008 race would be akin to a league right after a new revenue-sharing plan. The trend in sports has tilted towards creating more parity among the teams, trying to ensure that coaching and front office talent -- not bankroll -- determines who can rise up to be champion. In the most truncated primary season in modern history, we're seeing the same effect. Essentially, the way the calendar works, whoever has the "big mo" going into February 5 is going to run away with the whole thing. And, with relatively inexpensive states, where ground game trumps TV ads, up first, the best-funded, establishment-choice candidates of both parties now find themselves in a dogfight.
THE GOP SIDE
The media is focusing on Mitt Romney falling behind Mike Huckabee, which certainly is interesting, but misses the larger point -- what happened to President Rudy? Just a few months ago there was "no way" that anyone would be able to knock off Mayor 9/11. He had the money, he had the consultants, he had inevitability. I will tell you what: Not only will Rudy finish behind Huckabee and Romney in Iowa, he will finish fourth, behind Ron Paul, whose grassroots support will cause a minor quake in the party, because with Independents able to vote in either primary in New Hampshire, Paul will beat Rudy again there. At any rate, on the GOP side, right now, there's no way to predict what will happen at the very top, the most skilled ground game will win.
It all comes down to who has spent the most time in the film room, so to speak, and has the most talented -- not the most expensive -- organizers. While Huckabee is surging in the polls, what we don't know is what kind of ground game he has. We do know that it seems like Mitt Romney has been organizing in Iowa since David Beckham was the savior of soccer in America. Huckabee could be making strong appeals, but if he doesn't match it with a shrewd Iowa operation and ends up in second there, then Romney goes to on to win New Hampshire and runs away with the whole thing. Conversely, if Huckabee has been quietly building up his turn out the vote effort and caucus leadership teams, wins Iowa, and can just make it close in New Hampshire, the momentum is with him.
THE DEM SIDE
On the Democratic side, what can be said? I don't think Hillary Clinton is finished by any means. But, it's a real race. Again, just think back a month or two, and it was inevitable that she would be the nominee. Now, if she gets knocked off in Iowa by Obama, she likely would lose New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, and stagger into Feb 5. Obama isn't a candidate out of nowhere, like Huckabee on the GOP side, but as in the Romney-Huckabee contest, money is a wash and a non-factor in the Democratic primary now.
Both Clinton and Obama have tremendous ground efforts in Iowa, as well, so this one is going to be close as hell. I don't think one has an advantage over the other in their caucus operations (at least as far as I can tell). But, because the Democratic caucus system is so wacky, this one comes down to a couple of X-factors.
First, of course, is Oprah. I'm not here to argue that her endorsement should mean anything to caucus-goers, but it's pretty much undeniable that it will have at least some effect. We'll really know how much the Obama campaign believes in her by where they send her on caucus night.
If the Obama team really believes in the Power of O, then they'll send her out to precincts where Obama is the weakest, and try to trounce Hillary. In the state, you have about 1,780+ precincts that in 2004 attracted a little over 122,000 caucus goers on the D side, meaning, on average, there's about 68-70 caucus-goers per precinct. Precincts aren't winner take all -- they divide up their delegates to the state convention. Therefore, in most places, a relatively small number of votes makes a big difference.
It makes no sense to use Oprah in precincts where you're slightly winning, if you believe she has some real pull, because the large number of votes she brings would be wasted. But, in a precinct that Obama's team expects to lose badly, Oprah can easily give him a nice lead by just turning out 20 additional caucus goers -- if she really is that powerful. If Oprah is as powerful as some say, the result could be Obama nearly running the table in Iowa. If she's not, and they deploy her to areas where Obama is moderately strong, to just try to shore up those precincts, then we still will have a close contest, and maybe a Clinton win.
The second factor is Edwards supporters. Because there are a couple rounds of voting in caucuses, people can change allegiances if they see their candidate has no shot. In 2004, this ended up being a big deal for Edwards, as Kucinich supporters came over to his side and gave him a "surprising" win over Howard Dean. This time, if Edwards supporters see him consistently coming in third, will they peel off and try to "stop Hillary" by heading to the Obama camp? That is a huge question, because of just a few of them do, in precincts where Obama has a small lead, he could jump from winning those places by a small margin to a huge margin, and in places where he's slightly losing to Hillary, he could end up winning. If not, then Hillary can win the whole shebang.
THE ED FACTOR II
Speaking of the son of a mill-worker, do not count him out. Let's say that Obama can't flood the caucuses using Oprah, and that Obama and Hillary are close, with Edwards (who definitely has a good organization) nipping at their heels. Could make magic happen twice, with Kucinich supporters heading to the Edwards camp to put him over the top in some spots? It's not out of the question. Edwards is running on a much more populist-progressive platform than he did in 2004, focusing on trade, poverty, and corporate influence in Washington. If Kucinich supporters liked him in 2004, they have to really like him now.
If Edwards is hanging in there, maybe he strikes a deal with Kucinich supporters again, and vaults up to the top in many places. If he outright wins Iowa, he suddenly finds himself in a real race for the nomination with whoever finishes second in Iowa. Even if he doesn't win, and ends up second in Iowa, like 2004, he could send whoever ends up third of to pasture, like Dean in 2004. If ending up second in Iowa puts Obama or Clinton on life support, then finishing third to Edwards pretty much pulls the plug.
But, again, these are all unknowns, and the point is that we have a real race on both sides, and that money and ads don't mean as much as good old fashioned shoe-leather and electioneering.
No matter who you support, for pure speculation and debate among political junkies, the 2008 primaries are turning out to be the most exciting in a long time. Maybe, in the future, there will be someone who can game the new system like the Patriots (i.e. cheat... ahem), but for now, while infuriating for those in states that still vote when all is said and done, this all makes for one very intriguing January.