The Line: So Much For Our 50-Days Out Predictions
Back in November, when 50 days remained before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, The Fix penned extended looks at the state of the Democratic and Republican nomination fights and speculated about how the races might play out over the month of January.
So how did we do?
Let's start with the Democratic side:
On Nov. 14 we wrote: "Fifty days out from Iowa, Clinton must still be considered the frontrunner in the race, but she is increasingly vulnerable to attacks from her rivals. Clinton's vulnerability (real or imagined) comes just as Obama seems to have found his voice. Dismissing Edwards is a mistake, if only for his willingness to directly attack Clinton (a move that could well accrue to Obama's benefit) and his continued base of support in Iowa."
Not too shabby. Obama's ability to connect with voters in Iowa wound up delivering a stunning victory in that state's caucuses, while Edwards's years of working to win over Hawkeye State voters gave him a surprising second-place finish.
We also wrote: "The first- and second-place finishers in Iowa will have their tickets punched for the next leg of the ride. Finishing third in Iowa would likely end the candidacies of Edwards and Obama and cripple the campaign of Clinton."
One for two ain't bad right? Clinton's third-place finish in Iowa did not "cripple" her candidacy, although in the days between Iowa and New Hampshire it certainly appeared as though it had. Instead of letting the loss destroy her, Clinton quickly regrouped, changing the emphasis of the campaign from her to voters and more aggressively making the case against Obama.
One last point on our 50-day out analysis on the Democratic field. "If Clinton wins Iowa, she is the heavy favorite for the nomination," we wrote. "But if she doesn't, the race fundamentally changes." That one we got right. Clinton's inability to close the deal by winning both Iowa and New Hampshire turned the campaign from a coronation into a real race. The very fact that we are debating whether Obama or Clinton will emerge from Feb. 5 with momentum is a sign that this has turned into a more competitive contest than most people would have expected just a few months ago.
Overall Fix Grade for Democrats: B
Now, let's look at our 50 days out analysis of the Republican contest.
The Fix wrote, "the most likely outcome is a two-man fight between [former New York City Mayor Rudy] Giuliani and [former Massachusetts governor Mitt] Romney." Clearly, not a good guess.
The fight heading into Florida's primary next Tuesday appears to be between Romney and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Giuliani's decision to sit out all of the early state voting before Florida appears at the moment to have been the wrong one, as his numbers in Florida are faltering in the face of the momentum gained by the early state wins scored by McCain and Romney.
Speaking of McCain, we wrote that the Arizona senator needed to find a way to avoid finishing in fifth or sixth place in the Iowa caucuses in order to preserve his chances in New Hampshire. While McCain did manage a fourth-place Iowa finish, in retrospect his chances in New Hampshire probably had little to do with how he did in the Hawkeye State. Voters in the Granite State seemed to assert their independence from Iowa this year, not only handing McCain a victory but also breathing life into the stumbling Clinton campaign.
The one thing The Fix got right when it came to the Republican race was that the remarkable amount of fluidity could be a recipe for chaos. "Fifty days before the Iowa caucuses, the Republican presidential race remains remarkably wide open, with none of the candidates able to break from the pack," we wrote. The same could be said today.
Overall Fix Grade for Republicans: D
Now that we sorted through the entrails of those predictions, let's move on to this week's Line. As always, the No. 1 ranked candidate is given the best chance of winning his or her party's nomination. The Line is designed to be a conversation starter, so offer your thoughts in the comments section below.
To the Line!
3. John Edwards: Before the Nevada caucuses we bought into the logic of the Edwards's campaign: Stay in the race through Feb. 5, gather delegates and put the former North Carolina senator in a position where he can help crown the nominee and negotiate a deal for himself (veep perhaps?). But Edwards's 4 percent showing in the Silver State's caucuses suggests the possibility that he is headed for irrelevance sooner rather than later. To keep himself as a major player in the nomination fight, Edwards needs a bounce-back performance in South Carolina tomorrow. The polling out of the state is somewhat unreliable but suggests he will make a solid showing; if Edwards can finish a close third to Clinton (or even place second!) his delegate gathering strategy is right back on track. If not, he might not be in the race much longer. (Previous ranking: 3)
2. Barack Obama: Reasonable people can disagree about the effects of the tough exchanges between the Obama and Clinton camps the past few weeks. The Fix's belief at the moment is that it does not work in Obama's favor. Any time he is fighting with Bill (or Hillary) Clinton or defending his -- admittedly limited -- work with Tony Rezko is time he is not talking about how he can bring about real change for the middle class. Obama's campaign seems to recognize that the key to his success is to marry his remarkable rhetorical power with specific proposals that people can latch on to. The problem for the campaign is that all of the back and forth between the two campaigns has kept voters from focusing on the ways in which a vote for Obama signifies a real difference from a vote for Clinton on key policy matters like health care and the economy. Obama's likely victory tomorrow in South Carolina could serve as a nice pivot point for him to return to painting policy contrasts between himself and Clinton heading into Feb. 5. (Previous ranking: Tied for 1st)
1. Hillary Rodham Clinton: Clinton's back-to-back wins in New Hampshire and Nevada show that her campaign has regained its footing following the Iowa debacle. The key take-away from exit polling in New Hampshire and Nevada is the strong loyalty of women voters to Clinton. Women were always expected to be the key building block in Clinton's victory model, and they have come back to her in droves following Iowa. If that trend continues through Feb. 5, Clinton should feel good about her chances. The impact of the recent nastiness of the campaign remains an open question. Voters could well see the events as a return to the distasteful parts of the Clinton administration that they would prefer not to remember. But they could also take the questions and allegations raised by the Clinton campaign against Obama to heart and think twice about voting for the fresh-faced Illinois senator. (Previous ranking: Tied for 1st)
4. Rudy Giuliani: Two recent polls in Florida showed Giuliani mired in third place in Florida, a sign of major problems for his campaign. At issue is whether anything short of finishing first will be enough to give Giuliani any momentum heading into Feb. 5. His much ballyhooed leads in Feb. 5 delegate treasure troves like California and New York have evaporated, and its hard to see him coming back without the sort of big bounce that a win in the Sunshine State on Tuesday would get him. If Giuliani comes up short, he may well only have himself to blame; an unwillingness to draw stark contrasts with his opponents has complicated his efforts to take support from them in Florida. (Previous ranking: Tied for 3rd)
3. Mike Huckabee: Three points in South Carolina may wind up making the difference between Huckabee being a serious player on Feb. 5 or just an extra in the drama. Huckabee came close to knocking off McCain in the Palmetto State primary, but close isn't good enough in politics. If Fred Thompson had left the race before South Carolina, might Huckabee have unified enough conservatives to pull it out? Sure. But Fred didn't and Mike didn't. So, here we are. Because of his continued organizational and fundraising shortfalls, it's hard to see Huckabee going toe to toe with either McCain or Romney on Feb. 5. His best hope is to gather delegates in southern states and other areas with significant evangelical populations to make himself a real player in determining the identity of the nominee if (and when?) Feb. 5 passes without producing a clear GOP winner. (Previous ranking: Tied for 3rd)
2. Mitt Romney: Romney's team deserves credit for scoring a win in Nevada's caucuses, a state that was, at best, barely contested. Romney used that win to gloss over his distant fourth-place finish in South Carolina -- a state where he spent massive amounts of money and maintained an organization that had been on the ground for the better part of the last 18 months. Romney emerged from the votes last weekend with an improved outlook in the minds of the chattering class and, given his personal wealth and willingness to spend it, he is almost certain to be a factor on Feb. 5. Romney still hasn't closed the deal among conservatives, and it remains to be seen how he can win if the race turns into one-on-one battle between Romney and McCain. (Previous ranking: 2)
1. John McCain: As we noted earlier this week, McCain has not yet won the majority of Republican votes in any of the early contests -- although he came VERY close in both New Hampshire and South Carolina. So how is he the frontrunner for the Republican nomination? Because only McCain in the current field can still make a case to be the nominee if he loses Florida on Tuesday. A win in Florida would almost certainly lock up the nomination for McCain, but a loss -- even to Romney -- would not end his bid, as he retains considerable strength in Feb. 5 states like California and New York. (Previous ranking: 1)
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