Saturday, January 17, 2004

Politics: Handicapping the Field

Since the Iowa caucuses are Monday, I thought I’d contribute my two bits of political analysis on the Democratic presidential contest. The one thing I’m certain of is that after Iowa and New Hampshire, there will be no more than three candidates left in the competitive field. The political market, like any market, has a scarcity of resources, in this case money, free media, and paid media. Except for Howard Dean, none of the Democrats have enough resources to withstand poor showings in both early contests. This is why Dean is the frontrunner. The question now becomes, who will rise to the other two spots in the final field of three? There are five contenders for the two spots: Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, Wesley Clark, John Edwards, and Al Sharpton.

Gephardt has the most potential, and paradoxically the most to lose in the first two states. He appeals to a core Democratic value, trade protectionism, and his tenure as House minority leader gives him the most experience of all candidates in working with Congress and the party’s various factions. But if Gephardt doesn’t finish at least second in Iowa and New Hampshire, he won’t be able to raise enough money to purchase paid media in the larger states. Because Dean already has the backing of the public-sector labor unions, Gephardt cannot rely on AFL-CIO support to insure him.

Lieberman is the favored candidate of the moderate Democratic establishment (the New Republic-DLC crowd). He has no chance to win. Lieberman may be a pragmatist darling, but there is also no issue or constituency he can rely on for base support. This lack of political “hard capital” makes it impossible to raise the “soft capital” to actually win delegates.

Kerry remains the betting favorite to emerge from the early contests as Dean’s primary challenger. If that does happen, it virtually ensures Dean’s nomination. Kerry has all of Lieberman’s liabilities without any of Lieberman’s media credibility. He was a fraudulent candidate from the start.

Clark is even more of a fraud than Kerry. He has no agenda aside from seeking power. This makes him an appropriate heir to Bill Clinton, but Clark has none of Clinton’s talent for retail politicking and media management. He will almost certainly drop out if he doesn’t finish better than third in New Hampshire.

Edwards is the only candidate with a chance to stop Dean. His decision to avoid the early anti-Dean onslaught was rewarded with an endorsement by the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s statewide newspaper, and this should translate into at least a third-place finish on Monday. Edwards has the “upside” that Lieberman and Kerry lack, meaning he will attract money and free media should he finish well in New Hampshire. And if Edwards can’t make a run, he’ll emerge as an early favorite to be Dean’s running mate.

Sharpton will not win the nomination, but his potential impact on the race should not be discounted. Since he’s unlikely to fare well in Iowa or New Hampshire, the first real test for Sharpton will come in South Carolina. If he’s able to sustain himself, Sharpton could become the voice of minority disaffection with Dean and the “white Democratic” establishment. There is substantial discontent within this faction of the party, and it’s only a matter of time before it manifests itself. Remember what happened to George Bush I in 1992, when Pat Buchanan won enough support to force the White House to give him a primetime speaking slot at the convention. Buchanan’s now-infamous “cultural war” speech proved to be the iceberg that sunk Bush’s Titanic campaign. Sharpton could serve a similar function for Dean.

To sum up, I see Dean, Kerry, and Edwards emerging from New Hampshire as the three candidates of consequence, with Al Sharpton hanging out in the background. Since Kerry won’t win, the question is, will he get out of the race quickly enough to bolster Edwards’ chance of toppling Dean? The longer Kerry remains in the race, the more likely it’s Dean accepting the nomination in Boston.

Finally, since it’s never too early to speculate, I’d consider the possibility of Dean throwing caution to the wind when selecting a vice president. Edwards would be the safest choice, but if by the convention Dean feels his back is against the wall, he might take a stupid risk to invigorate his base. After this week’s endorsement, I think Carol Mosley-Braun is precisely the type of person a panicked Dean would consider. And if you think a Dean-Braun ticket is beyond the realm of possibility, I have two words for you: Dan Quayle.

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