The Epic 2008 Election (So Far)

[ Posted Wednesday, January 30th, 2008 – 16:14 UTC ]

Out of the frozen tundra of Iowa, out of the snowy mountains of Vermont, out of the brightly-lit casinos in the Nevada desert, out of the churches of South Carolina... campaign '08 comes barreling down towards Super Duper Tsunami Tuesday like a cheetah on steroids. But I'd like to pause here for a moment, take a deep breath, and look at the 2008 election's "big picture" -- where we've been, where we are, and how we got here.

The most striking thing about the 2008 campaign so far has been the mainstream media pundits being so wrong, so many times. Here are just a few of the nuggets of "conventional wisdom" served up as gospel truth by the chattering classes -- which all turned out to be laughable: "McCain is finished," "Hillary is inevitable," "Obama will lose Iowa since it's all white," "Ron Paul is a fringe candidate who will not be able to raise any money," "Huckabee doesn't have any money, so there's no way he will win Iowa," "Hillary will lose New Hampshire," "if a candidate (especially a woman) ever seems to cry on the campaign trail, their campaign is over," "Rudy Giuliani is the Republican frontrunner," "this election will be all about Iraq," "black people won't vote for Obama because he isn't 'black enough' and Hillary will win their votes," "Bill Clinton will be a big plus when campaigning for black votes," "Obama will win South Carolina, but it will be a close race," "Fred Thompson will be the next Ronald Reagan," "Everything will be decided on Super Tuesday," "Republicans always choose a frontrunner early and fall in line behind him," "Romney has it all wrapped up now," "Hillary has it all wrapped up now," "McCain has it all wrapped up now," et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum.

It only goes to show, you shouldn't believe what you hear. Especially not this year. Because if you watch the pontificating pinheads on television, the only conclusion you can draw is that it's a waste of time listening to such drivel, as the so-called "experts" don't have a clue. They've gotten things wrong over and over and over again, and yet still people listen. Also, polls can't be trusted -- most especially way-too-early nationwide polls that show nothing more than name recognition (look at Giuliani's numbers if you don't believe this).

The current fad amongst the chattering classes is to micro-analyze demographic trends in an attempt to predict what's going to happen next. Black voters are for Obama. White men are for Edwards, white women for Hillary. Hispanics don't like black candidates, so they're in Hillary's corner. Young people are for Obama. Older people are for Hillary.

But you know what? I haven't gotten my marching orders in the mail yet ("TO: white male Democratic voter in California -- We, as an ethnic group, have decided that candidate A is our choice in this election, so please vote accordingly"). Just because a slight majority in one demographic favors one candidate over the other, you simply can't say "they're all for that candidate." Ethnic groups are not the single-minded creatures the punditocracy portrays. Nowhere is this truer than Hispanics, who come from a variety of countries and live in vastly different regions of America, and who simply cannot be pigeonholed as a single voting bloc. A Cuban in Miami votes differently than a Mexican in Nevada, who votes differently than a Puerto Rican in New York City. But television talking heads don't like nuance, they like a clear "storyline" that they can easily talk about.

This year was supposed to be an experiment with slightly opening up the early primary states to allow some diversity in the process. For the most part, this has been a success. [I should add that I'm mostly focused on the Democratic primary calendar here.] Instead of two lily-white states choosing the nominee for the rest of us, we also had a state with a substantial Hispanic population (Nevada) and a state with a substantial black population (South Carolina) added to the mix. This has helped widen the issues addressed by the campaigns, and has given minorities more of a voice in the selection, which is what it was supposed to do.

Michigan and Florida jumped the gun, and were rendered irrelevant to the process. I feel for the voters in these two states, since either of them could make a case that their demographics should be added to the early calendar as well (Michigan, for the unions, and Florida because it's so important in the general election). But maybe penalizing them will discourage states from jumping the gun in the future... which was the whole point of penalizing them.

Now, the process still seems arbitrary to many, I admit. Personally, I would like my state to go first, and have everyone else follow. I suspect I'm not alone in thinking this. Anyone can come up with a better system in about five minutes' time. How about: The four states with the highest percentage of eligible voters actually voting in the previous election go first next time around? If your state is in the top four (nationwide) of voter turnout, then your state has proved that it is more politically involved than everyone else, so you get to go first next time.

This isn't the only way to make the process more rational, just the first one that popped into my mind. But we have the system we have (for this election, anyway), and I have to say that the experiment this year seems to have worked. The candidates -- and the media -- actually talked about Hispanic voting patterns and African-American issues, which they never did this early, when we just had New Hampshire and Iowa. So, using that yardstick, adding Nevada and South Carolina worked, to a certain extent.

It's worth pointing out as well that the dire warnings made six months ago about our upcoming de facto "national primary" may be overblown. I've been saying for a while now that neither party may have a clear nominee after February 5th, meaning that the states that didn't move their primaries up will be the most important ones -- exactly the opposite of what the media said when the national primary was becoming apparent.

Of course, the field has narrowed on both sides, but again, that is what early primaries are supposed to do. This means that much of America may live in states where you may not get to vote for "your candidate" because they've already dropped out of the race. But the system is supposed to show that if a candidate can't win in many regions of the country, or can't attract enough votes in at least one or two of the early states, that even though they may be the candidate who best shares your views, they simply would not have had the nationwide support necessary to win in November. This is an agonizing thing to realize, and I include myself in that as well (the candidate I liked best and wanted to vote for has dropped out of the race, so I'm left deciding between Clinton and Obama). But it's simply cold hard political fact -- if they haven't done it by now, they're probably just not going to be the winner we need for the general election.

Let's take a quick overview of the race so far. On the Republican side of the race, McCain and Romney have been anointed frontrunners, with Huckabee and Ron Paul fighting over the scraps. But Republicans have a lot of "winner take all" primaries, meaning that neither McCain nor Romney may have it locked up if they split winning states next Tuesday (especially if Huckabee wins a few southern states). It's down to a clear two on the Democratic side, but most Democratic primaries are proportional. This means if there are close races (no matter who wins) in lots of states, both Hillary and Barack will be frantically counting delegates next Wednesday morning... and the race will likely continue. And even when we winnow both parties down to a single nominee, there's always the possibility of a third-party run by Bloomberg, Nader, or even Ron Paul.

What all of this means is that at least one prediction all the pundits made last year is coming true -- and it's good news for everyone. Not only will the race continue and perhaps get even more interesting, but the voters are turning out in record numbers at the polls. This has been noted on the Democratic side more often, but Republicans are breaking primary voting records as well. Which means the prediction was correct -- this could be the most exciting election in a long, long time.

And that is good news indeed, for everybody.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


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