For months it has been assumed that Hillary Clinton has the Democratic nomination sown up, and that the Republican contest is more open but dominated by Rudy Giuliani. A closer look at the most recent polling publicly available in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina presents a different picture: Clinton is actually no stronger in the early states than the current GOP leader in those states, who isn't Giuliani but Mitt Romney.
Clinton and Giuliani are finally beginning to be systematically called to task for their positions (on Iraq, Iran or torture, for instance), campaign tactics (audience plants) and the true value of their experience. The stepped up scrutiny appears to be having an effect, at least in the early states, where the similarities in the Democratic and Republican races are striking: Clinton and Romney both lead their runner-ups by an average of 12 percent in the three states, and lead the third-ranked candidate by an average of 19 percent for Romney, and 17 percent for Clinton.
In these early contests, the momentum is not with the national leaders, Clinton and Giuliani, but with Romney, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul for Republicans, and Barack Obama for Democrats. Clinton's most recent poll movements are patchy at best (sharply down in New Hampshire, in slight but significant decline in Iowa, and unclear in South Carolina); Giuliani is on a clear downward trend.
Romney has another advantage over Clinton: while both he and Clinton are solid leaders in the early states, his opposition is increasingly fragmented, while she faces a strong second in Obama in all three states. Clinton's challenges are further compounded by local circumstances:
* In Iowa, where polling is notoriously difficult because of the nature of caucusing, she is essentially in a three-way tie; she could conceivably end up third behind Obama and John Edwards.
* In New Hampshire, where her lead had grown all year, her current decline is the sharpest; independents, a huge group of voters in the state, appear likely to vote in the Democratic primary in larger numbers than usually, and Obama is particularly strong among them.
* In South Carolina, it remains unclear how African-Americans will vote (they constitute half the Democratic primary voters in the state and are likely the key to success there); after many observers' unfortunate assumption that Obama would easily win a large majority of black voters, he seems to be working hard at convincing African-American skeptics.
As for Giuliani, he appears to be plummeting to irrelevance:
* In Iowa, where his poll numbers have crashed as sharply as John McCain's, he is in third, possibly fourth, place, well behind Huckabee among others; as Craig Crawford surprisingly aptly puts it: Giuliani is not doing enough to win in Iowa and yet doing too much to write off a loss.
* In New Hampshire, he has been remarkably consistent at 20 percent to 23 percent of the intended primary vote for months; this has also meant that he has been consistently second there, initially to McCain then to Romney, and has been unable to get to the next level in a state that should be a reasonably natural fit for him; if independents, a good source of support for Giuliani, vote in droves in the Democratic primary, this will further undermine his standing in the state.
* He has been in steady decline in South Carolina, and while he retains unexpected strength there, his cultural and political appeal is likely to be severely tested in this most conservative of states.
The importance of the early contests can be argued, as it has been for a long time, but it is now a realistic possibility that Clinton could lose Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to Obama. Among Republicans, a Romney sweep of the early states is actually the most likely scenario at this stage
In this scenario, Clinton and Giuliani, the most popular candidates nationally in their respective parties, would face the February 5 "national primary" without a single significant win and thus severely damaged, but most likely with substantial financial resources.
What happens then is anybody's guess, but let's keep in mind the wild swings in national polls after most (all?) Iowa and New Hampshire primary presidential contests, which could rapidly spell the end of the national Clinton or Giuliani candidacies, regardless of their current high numbers in New York or California. And let's keep in mind that at least two, and perhaps as many as four or five other candidates between the two parties still have a shot at a nomination. Clinton and Giuliani's troubles are only beginning, and they have a long two months ahead of them.