The Long Campaign of Inevitability

17 10 2007

Michael Tomasky, editor of Guardian America, sounded off this week against the mainstream media for over hyping the influence of the new primary schedule and perceived front-runner status of certain candidates.

In a response a to a reader’s question about whether or not some other candidate that’s not Obama or Clinton can still muster enough momentum to perform well in the early primaries, Tomasky said the following in the New York Review of Books:

The new primary schedule, or more to the point the media’s treatment of the new schedule, is one of the most maddening things to me about this political season so far. Originally, the (laudable) aim of adding South Carolina and Nevada as early primaries, and of other larger states jumping forward to February 5, was to diminish the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire. But the media—the experts on cable TV and so on—have decided that the new calendar only augments the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire. I haven’t been able to figure out from any of them exactly why this is so, except that for whatever reason they’ve decided it’s so. It’s a classic case of the media pretending to be describing a reality but actually creating it by constantly yakking about it.

Thus, the experts have already agreed: if Edwards loses Iowa, he’s finished. This seems preposterous to me. What if the Iowa result is a very close three-way result among Clinton, Obama, and Edwards, and Edwards finishes third by just a few percentage points? The media will be shooing him out of the race from the moment the polls close.

One does not have to look far and wide for examples that illustrate Tomasky’s point. Pundits and reporters at various media outlets itching to prematurely dubb Sen. Hillary Clinton Madame Inevitable. Back in August, Stanley Fish said, “It’s time to start thinking seriously about Hillary Clinton’s running mate.” CNN’s senior political analyst Bill Schneider, for example, recently said Hillary was “looking more inevitable, and the more inevitable she looks, the easier it is to raise money. People want to be with a winner.” Additionally, reports about her commanding lead in the polls and in recent fund raising totals are certainly meant to underscore the notion that she is the presumptive nominee.

While it is important to remember that at this point in 2004 Howard Dean was leading in the national polls and then manage to decompose on the campaign trail, Clinton is a far more discipline candidate with a solid organization behind her. More importantly, she has him to play backup.

But if Iowa remains a statistical dead heat once the polling results come in, I am not so sure that that if Edwards finishes second or third in a close race he will be summarily dismissed as Tomasky suggests. If that occurs, the new narrative will likely be that she should have convincingly beat her competition by a larger margin, and that she is not entirely invincible after all. In fact, the more the media over hypes her current lead in the polls, the more likely this will occur through the early primaries if Obama or anyone else beats her or significantly narrows the gap in any of the early states.

Interestingly enough, Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic believes that the compressed and frontloaded primary calendar actually favors that insurgent candidate more than it does the front runner.

In the past, such as in 1984, the calendar worked to the frontrunner’s advantage; Mondale was able to outlast Hart. No longer. This year, the calendar plays to the insurgent’s advantage in that it is so scrunched up that a single defeat or case of expectations not being met will hurt the frontrunner. It won’t kill her, but she’ll need to find a firewall state in a hurry.

In the same vein, Barack Obama is like no other challenger in history. He is not Gary Hart to Clinton’s Walter Mondale. (1) He is the best-funded top-tier challenger in the history of American politics; (2) no candidate’s biography better intersects with the historical moment; (3) the calendar benefits him.

But of course its difficult to trust any of the early prognostications when despite the fact that the two best candidates running in the field, be it R or D, is a woman that inspires irrational hatred among many voters and a black man whose name sounds like a terrorist to the ears of many Americans.




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