Seven things we learned yesterday from Nevada and South Carolina (the reference to 45 ½, by the way, denotes the fact that South Carolina Democrats have yet to cast their ballots):
1. On the one hand, the Democratic race for president remains a tossup. All that we learned for certain yesterday is that John Edwards' name will not be on the general election ballot in November. Not only does his third place finish in the strongly pro-union state of Nevada spell the effective conclusion of his presidential ambitions, but snow will fall in Honolulu before either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton name the former vice presidential candidate to the ticket for a second time—nobody wants to be associated, even indirectly, with John Kerry's pathetic 2004 bid for the White House. Edwards will probably hang on through next week's South Carolina primary (it's his native state), but anything other than a highly unlikely first place finish will likely have him dropping out before the Super Tuesday contests of February 5. Still a relatively young man, perhaps Edwards can hope for a cabinet position in a Democratic administration. He might also make one last attempt to restore his presidential viability by running for—and winning—the North Carolina governorship. But for 2008 at least, only two serious Democratic candidacies are left, and they are essentially tied.
2. Having said that, Barack Obama faces his first must-win contest this Saturday in South Carolina. Perhaps must-win is a bit strong—he will charge ahead to Super Tuesday regardless of the outcome in the Palmetto State—but a loss next week will effectively break the tie with Senator Clinton, leaving her the strong favorite for the nomination, going into February 5 with possibly unstoppable momentum as well as a critical aura of electability. Recent polls indicate that African American voters have surged to Obama in recent weeks and South Carolina represents the first test of that proposition. As the campaign progresses, the Illinois senator's viability will increasingly depend on receiving strong African American support. If this doesn't put him over the top in South Carolina, then it becomes much more difficult to imagine a winning strategy anywhere else.
3. For a campaign that seemingly never makes mistakes, the Obama camp made a rather big one last night. Almost as soon as the caucuses were completed, the senator's campaign manager was on television attempting to spin his man's loss as a victory. Obama, argued David Plouffe, may have lost the popular vote in Nevada, but he actually gained more convention delegates. Since delegates, and not votes, determine the Democratic nomination, Plouffe suggested that Hillary Clinton was the evening's loser. This, of course, is nonsense: the early, small-state primaries are important not because of the relatively paltry number of delegates they contribute to the candidates' ledger, but rather as barometers of each contestant's popular appeal. Senator Clinton won the Nevada caucuses regardless of whatever arcane electoral math may have given her colleague an additional, unearned delegate. To hear the campaign spin a loss like this makes Senator Obama sound like just another manipulative politician, something he promised never to be. Even worse, it gives off a whiff of both desperation and poor sportsmanship.
4. John McCain's "big win" in the South Carolina Republican primary encapsulates everything wrong with the American system of selecting presidents. McCain defeated Mike Huckabee by only about three percentage points, but is, on that basis, now the undisputed frontrunner in the race for the GOP nomination. The Arizonan's narrow victory resulted, more than anything else, from a split in the conservative Republican vote between Huckabee and Right Dead Fred Thompson. McCain still polls relatively poorly among Republicans and Christian conservatives, two constituencies he will desperately need if he comes out of the GOP convention as his party's standard bearer. After his troubling musings about the Bible and the Constitution, it is a bit of a relief to see Huckabee once again relegated to the second tier of candidates, but any fair analysis of the South Carolina results would suggest that the former Arkansas governor's performance kept him essentially tied with McCain and spotlighted the latter's remaining weaknesses among the party faithful. (Unlike Obama, however, at least Mike Huckabee didn’t try to spin his loss into some sort of accounting triumph.)
5. Mitt Romney got very lucky. Today's story should have been that the Mittster's fourth place performance down south validated fears that either his ideological flip-flopping or his Mormon faith would render him unelectable below the Mason-Dixon Line. Instead, along with Clinton and McCain, Romney is receiving equal billing as one of the three Saturday winners for his victory in the Nevada caucuses. Since he was the only serious candidate to campaign meaningfully in the Silver State, Romney's showing there should have been no more remarkable than his win a couple of weeks ago in Wyoming, an event that was all but ignored by the political media. Oddly enough, the former Massachusetts governor owes the publicity surrounding this latest victory to the Democrats. Because Clinton, Obama, and Edwards spent over a week shuttling between Las Vegas and Reno, the press showed up to report on them. Thus, Romney enjoyed spillover coverage from journalists who would not even have been in Nevada except for the closely fought Democratic race. As the saying goes, if a tree falls in an empty forest it may not make a sound. Wyoming was that empty forest; Nevada, thanks to the Dems, was not.
6. John McCain's narrow victory in South Carolina, growing wider with every retelling, has greatly reduced the possibility that either party will face a brokered convention this summer. The Democratic race has been a two-person show since New Hampshire. It now appears that the GOP contest is following suit, with McCain and Romney the only two candidates retaining significant viability. As I've noted previously, Rudy Giuliani loses badly every time John McCain wins. McCain's strengths are Giuliani's strengths, simply contained in a more appealing and less corrupt package. The fact that Rudy decided to run advertisements in Florida predictably exploiting 9/11, but this time callously including actual footage of the disaster itself, suggests that his campaign has entered desperation mode. Perhaps he can somehow carve out a victory in the Sunshine State with a combination of New York retirees and firebreathing Cuban nationalists, but the prospect seems increasingly remote. Thus, the GOP can likely expect a two-man race from here on out. And two-candidate contests, almost by definition, do not lend themselves to brokered conventions.
7. Duncan Hunter, we hardly knew ye. And we're glad.
UPDATE: Welcome to all of you who were attracted here by the Wall Street Journal link (thanks, WSJ). Please take a look around. A lot of Election 2008 posts below and in the archives. Y'all come back now, y'hear.