Obama and Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses hands down last night (see AP article). Obama won 38% of the 220,558 Democratic voters that turned out, to garner 16 delegates. Edwards won 30% for 15 delegates, and Clinton won 29% for 14 delegates.
The story is more lopsided on the Republican side, with Huckabee winning 34% of the 114,000 GOP voters that turned out, for 30 delegates. Romney picked up only 25% for 7 delegates. Democrats turned out almost 2 to 1 as many voters as Republicans.
The Clinton campaign shrugs Sen. Clinton’s third place finish off, saying that their strategy is focused in larger states that come later in the primary cycle. (This is also the Giuliani approach. He mounted almost no effort in Iowa at all, preferring to apply his resources to larger states that have many more delegates. Incidentally, Giluliani’s got to be loving the Huckabee win in Iowa. It will make his job of running against Romney easier in the later states.)
The Romney campaign, which spent over a year making Iowa the first major battle it must win in order to leverage competitiveness in later states is also soft pedaling its loss to Huckabee, saying that Romney will be far more competitive in all of the other early states than Huckabee.
Both the Clinton and Romney campaigns are probably right about their chances in later states, but man, their Iowa losses have got to sting. You spend over a year pouring millions of dollars into building a strong campaign machine in the state. You practically live part-time in the state. And yet you find that you can’t overcome the personality issue — the fact that Iowa voters don’t get warm fuzzies about your personality, which is something that is pretty ingrained by this point in your life. Instead, they go for the candidates that have the warmest personalities. It’s got to gall you.
For Romney, the question of religion did turn out to be important. 80% of Huckabee’s Iowa voters were Evangelical Christians, like Huckabee himself (see AP report). 60% of Huckabee’s Iowa voters felt “it was very important to share their candidate's religious beliefs.” If Huckabee has to rely mostly on fellow Evangelicals, he won’t find much support in New Hampshire, or anywhere in the Northeast. He might find more support in the Bible Belt, but that alone won’t win him the nomination. He’s going to have to find ways to reach out to non-Evangelicals. At any rate, it appears that Romney had no chance to win the support of most Huckabee voters chiefly on the basis of religion.
Ron Paul came in with 10% of the GOP vote, only slightly behind Thompson and McCain, who each garnered 13%. (It should be noted that McCain won this support without even campaigning much in Iowa.) Some analysts are saying that New Hampshire’s culture and primary process favors independently-minded candidates, so that Paul could turn a much higher result in the Granite State, like McCain did in 2000. McCain is surging in New Hampshire as well. However, Paul will likely suffer the same fate in South Carolina that McCain did in 2000, since that state’s culture and primary process does not favor mavericks.
Is it any wonder that Americans are tired of Iowa and New Hampshire having such an outsized impact on our presidential selection process? Iowa is notoriously populist leaning and is generally indifferent about military issues and foreign policy. This made candidates like Huckabee and Edwards far more competitive there than they would be in most other states. New Hampshire tends to be independent minded to the point of seeming nutty to the rest of the nation. How would the nation like Utah or Idaho to have as much sway in selecting presidents as Iowa and New Hampshire?
Iowa does not actually have a very good track record of selecting eventual party nominees or presidents, but its caucuses do tend to narrow the field. New Hampshire has a better record than Iowa, but it’s not that great. Once again, it tends to narrow the field a bit. Michigan and South Carolina have better records, but it is possible that this is somewhat due to what has already occurred in Iowa and New Hampshire by the time these later primaries occur.
This year we have Wyoming (tomorrow), Nevada (Jan. 19), and Florida (Jan. 29) added into the mix of early states before most of the rest of us vote on Feb. 5. The idea is that this combination of early states, taken as a whole, provides some kind of balanced approach. But to most Americans, it still looks pretty screwy.
Wikipedia lists five proposals for changing the presidential primary system to be fairer. Some of them strangely keep Iowa and New Hampshire up front in the name of tradition. Others would assign states primary/caucus dates by lottery or rotation. Iowans and Granite Staters have made it clear that they will strongly oppose any plan that does not let them keep their overgrown power. In practice, the setting of primary dates is left up to each individual state, with the major political parties’ national committees working to exert some power over the process.
With all the bickering and ambiguity over who actually has the power to change the process, politicians have found little motivation to get serious about fixing our current presidential primary system. But this year’s messed up process may generate the necessary oomph to get the politicians going on it.