It seems like we’ve been involved in the presidential campaign for a year, probably because we have been involved with the presidential campaign for a year.
A lot has happened, intriguingly, even though no one has even voted yet. In a previous column, I looked at the Democrats and handicapped them. As we get very close to Iowa and New Hampshire — the two main events — let’s re-examine each of the candidates.
Hillary Clinton: I cringed when her chief strategist, and my polling colleague, Mark Penn wrote a 350-page memo several months ago declaring her to be inevitable as the next president of the United States. It was the wrong message for a number of reasons.
First, it raised expectations way too high, so she was left running against herself; and second, it sounded horribly arrogant, which I still think it was. Third, it misunderstood — then and now — the genuine anger that voters feel and their willingness to take it out on some of the best-known candidates. Finally, one thing I know about Iowa voters is that they don’t like to be told whom they’re going to vote for.
It is not over, but let me restate here what I’ve been suggesting in columns, speeches, and media appearances for a couple of months: Sen. Clinton could come in third in Iowa. Thus, arguably the best-known presidential candidate in American history has a ceiling of 25 percent to 29 percent in Iowa. Not likely to bring those numbers up, she has tried to go negative at Obama to bring his numbers down.
It seems to be backfiring on her.
Barack Obama: Hope and change seem to be what Americans are looking for. They are troubled by Obama’s lack of experience and his age, but so far of any of the Democratic candidates, he has the strongest appeal among moderates and independents in both the primaries and the general election. Will he get lost in the back and forth with Clinton and get damaged in the process? So far it doesn’t look like it.
Right now he’s the odds-on favorite in Iowa and several early states that follow and his numbers seem to improve every day. Also, he does better against any of the leading Republicans than any other Democrat. He can survive a second-place showing in Iowa . . . if the winner is Edwards.
John Edwards: He could gain the most from the Hillary-Obama drama. We know that John Edwards has honed a very popular message. It worked well for him in 2004, the notion of “Two Americas” that includes an alienated, anxiety-ridden middle class as well. Edwards is the best natural stump speaker of the three candidates and his audiences are large, and they like him.
His message at the moment of economic populism is probably too hot for the general election, but he can modulate that should he secure the nomination. His biggest problem is a lack of money. Others have suggested that his other problem may be just gaining attention, as Hillary and Obama suck up the oxygen. However, Edwards has maintained his support in the low 20s; he knows this caucus system; and he is a very popular second choice among supporters of also-ran candidates who will not meet the 15 percent “viability” standard. So this remains very much a three-way race.
Edwards does not have as much money as Clinton and Obama, but a victory in Iowa could help him enormously in that regard. He also has one of the best Internet fundraisers in Howard Dean’s strategist, Joe Trippi. And for those north of the Mason-Dixon Line who doubt the sincerity of his Southern drawl, the same was said of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton — the last three Democratic presidents.
Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel . . . we’re starting to see some evidence of interest in Joe Biden’s candidacy as Clinton fades a little. If Biden can jump up to 15 percent, he could gain more attention than the No. 3 finisher and bill himself as the seasoned candidate who can go the distance. The same can be said for Bill Richardson. None of the other candidates, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, and Mike Gravel, show any promise whatsoever.
But it’s been a topsy-turvy year. Look for a few more topsys and turveys.
John Zogby is president and CEO of Zogby International.
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