Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Big Girls Don't Cry

So, anyone see that one coming? Certainly not the Clintons, who were telling everyone who would listen that a loss by less than ten points would be a victory. Certainly not Barack Obama, whose evident self-confidence may have ultimately put off many New Hampshirites who defiantly insisted that their votes had yet to be counted. And certainly not the working press, which spent the past five days gleefully dancing on Hillary's grave.

Oh, and not me, either.

Many of the lessons coming out of New Hampshire this morning are those that we seemingly have to re-learn every four years. First, Iowa is different. Their night-long caucuses, especially on the Democratic side, discourage participation by people whose commitment to politics is anything less than fervent. That is, caucus results, even when turnout is relatively high, provide a distorted picture of the electorate. Mike Huckabee found that out last night; so did Barack Obama.

It was not the youth vote that came out to support Obama last week in Iowa; it was the supercharged youth vote, the true believers. Not only were they highly motivated, but the Obama campaign developed a first-rate grass-roots organization that kept them energized and got them to the caucuses. It was a brilliant strategy, brilliantly executed.

In the higher-turnout New Hampshire primary, however, that wasn't enough. The Illinois senator required not only his most passionate young supporters to come to the polls, he also needed them to bring their less politically committed classmates and friends along for the ride. Unfortunately for Obama, any candidate whose hopes rest on the electoral participation of young Americans will generally be disappointed. Just ask Howard Dean.

(This is not to say that Obama is finished. Clearly, his dependence on college kids and twenty-somethings is greater in states with low minority populations like Iowa and New Hampshire. Assuming that Obama polls strongly among African Americans and, perhaps, Latinos, then he will be much less reliant on the youth vote in the larger and more diverse states still ahead on the electoral calendar.)

We also re-learned that New Hampshire voters are disinclined to rubber stamp the results coming out of the Hawkeye State. Reporters talk about this all this time, usually accompanied by some romantic babbling about contrary New Englanders and their proud traditions dating back to the French and Indian Wars, or some such nonsense. Live free or die, as the license plates say. To listen to the media stereotype, you would think that all New Hampshirites are like those plain-speaking country folk who surrounded innkeeper Bob Newhart during his second TV series back in the 1980s (yes, I know the show was set in Vermont, but you get the idea).

In fact, New Hampshire is dominated by urbanites in a few small cities as well as yuppies who live just across the border from Massachusetts and look to Boston rather than Manchester for their news and cultural identities. Their desire to second-guess Iowa has little to do with the simple wisdom of the mountain people. Rather, it represents a desire to take a step back from the precipice of inevitability. My guess is that many New Hampshirites worried that Barack Obama was racing too quickly to the nomination without being tested, and that the Democratic Party would pay the price in November. Tellingly, according to CNN's exit poll, a plurality of those who made up their minds on Election Day selected Hillary Clinton, and she nearly tied her opponent among those who decided over the past three days (Obama was strong with voters who made their decisions over the last week and month, Clinton among those who did so before Thanksgiving). In a sense, a vote for Hillary was the safe choice: it would determine nothing, simply passing on a vigorous two-way race to the next set of voters in the next several states.

But let me toss one more factor out there, just to see what you think. (By the way, I went to bed early last night and I've read nothing other than the CNN website this morning, so my apologies to anyone who considers the following unoriginal.) I wonder if maybe, just maybe, Hillary Clinton's little emotional moment on Monday wasn't a small galvanizing event. I don't mean the episode itself; my guess is that most Americans are so cynical that they believe that pretty much everything a candidate says and does is scripted. Bill, after all, used to do this sort of thing all the time.

Rather, I am referring to the media's reaction to what happened. On its best day, the national press corps will never be mistaken for a chapter of the Friends of Hillary. On this day, however, reactions were stunningly snarky and often frankly sexist. I don't think anyone directly quoted that Dylan line from long ago ("She breaks just like a little girl"), but reporters and pundits treated the incident as though Senator Clinton had been reduced to a blubbering mess right there in front of God and Chris Matthews. Since they played the tape incessantly, even the most casual viewer could recognize the incongruity between what had actually taken place and how it was being covered by the boys in the testosterone-filled press pool. Isn't it possible that this last-minute event, and especially its coverage, may have driven some women (and men) back into the Clinton camp?

Anyhow, let's not make the same mistake we did last week. Let's not assume that we really know anything yet. The Democrats obviously will feature an intense two-person race until at least February 5. John McCain is this week's GOP frontrunner, but Rudy Giuliani awaits, as do the Christian conservative Huckabee supporters down South. I think Romney is probably finished, but you never know. And, hey, maybe Fred Thompson will come out of hibernation before the onset of spring.

But if it does turn out to be a Clinton-McCain contest in November, we will have the ultimate test of the media's capacity for self-control. Reporters love John McCain almost as much as they dislike Hillary Clinton. Will they be able to restrain themselves this time, as they were not in 2000 and 2004? We shall see.

Or maybe it will be Obama-Huckabee, in which case who the hell knows?


redbarb said...

Okay, you got the same possible explanation for Hillary's win as I do and yours is early. I concede only that great minds think alike.

I am wanting to see data on another possibility as well. There is much talk of Hillary doing well among working class women and Edwards' numbers were lower than expected in New Hampshire, why the Obama number was actually close to expectation if you look across all the polls. Could it have been that the surge in votes came from women who had previously indicated a previous for Edwards? No one has looked at this, but it is an interesting hypothesis to me.

By the way, says the pollster are avoiding Nevada because they don't know how to poll in this caucus. Chickens.

The Man Who Was Never Born said...

That's a good point. I bet you're right. Clinton picked up some of Edwards's female supporters plus--I assume--the lion's share of undecided women.