The Big Winners

There were three winners in Iowa last night: Mike Huckabee, Barack Obama, and John McCain. The race in both parties has now changed, with the path to the nomination clearer on the Democratic side than the Republican.

The Democrats

Barack Obama won decisively, by 8% over Edwards and 9% over Clinton.  Voters under age 30 made up a fifth of the Democratic caucus voters and they gave over 50% of their votes to Obama.  This has to make GOP strategists nervous about the general election if Obama is the nominee.  Young voters are often not picked up in polling surveys, since many only use cell phones. Traditional election models may be useless if Obama is the Democratic Party nominee.

Will Obama now be the nominee?  He has quite a few things going for him:  momentum, media love, steely ambition, and lots of money. Obama was already about even with Clinton in New Hampshire before the Iowa caucus results were known. He will now surely vault ahead of her there.

He is also now the favorite in South Carolina , where almost half of Democratic Party primary voters will be African American. Black voters had taken a bit of a wait-and-see attitude with Obama, not sure he could win. Now they are likely to abandon Clinton and shift to Obama in large numbers. That means the potential for big wins in states like Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, where the African American share of the population is 20% or more, and about double that in Democratic primaries.

Hillary Clinton's path  to the nomination is now very much at risk. But she is still in the game. She is likely to do well in some of the large states voting on February 5th (New York and New Jersey, among them). But most of her national polling  lead of roughly 20% will  disappear within days.  And that means that she will lose the leads she now holds in many of the states that will vote on February 5th.

Can Clinton recover?  She has lots of money, and an infrastructure in place in many states. But her strength was the sense of inevitability about her winning, and her claim of  long and meaningful experience. Neither was enough to win in Iowa. In Iowa, Clinton benefited from a strong race by John Edwards, which served to dilute the anyone but Clinton vote. Edwards  does not have the money that Obama and Clinton have, and will likely be gone after South Carolina. His obsession with the Presidency will have to wait until 2012, assuming the GOP wins next year, or 2016 if they do not.  Edwards'parroting of Ralph Nader's anti-corporation message would never win a general election, but he also had no choice except to run to the left of the other major candidates.  With Edwards out of the race at some point,  most of his support will go to Obama, which only makes Clinton's predicament even larger.

At this point, I think the likelihood of Obama winning the nomination is over 50%.  Hillary has most of the Democratic Party's super delegates committed to her, and she will work to try to weaken Obama by putting the spotlight on him in as unfavorable a light as possible. And she will fight for every delegate in every state. But if Obama wins most of the state contests, she is doomed.

Running against Obama is very tricky. It is hard to run against hope and unity, and breaking the color line and all that symbolizes.  Yes, Obama is inexperienced. His instincts on dealing with the threat of Islamic jihadists suggests naïvete.  They do not want to sit down and talk with us, not even him.

But it may not matter. Obama is connecting with Democrats, independents, and some Republicans. After the bitterness of the Clinton and Bush years, he is an analgesic, a fresh face, promising better times and a more peaceful politics.  The Republicans may rue the day Obama won Iowa, since Clinton would be a far easier candidate to run against.

The Republicans

Could Mike Huckabee actually win the nomination?  I think he could, though his road to victory is much more difficult than Obama's. Huckabee will likely get a boost in New Hampshire from  his big Iowa win (9% over Romney), but it is hard to see him following up the Iowa victory with one in New Hampshire. More likely, he finishes third in the Granite State, unless Romney's support collapses there and Huckabee places second.

John McCain, who will finish in an approximate tie for third in Iowa with Fred Thompson, is in very good shape to win New Hampshire against Romney's damaged campaign. McCain was already ahead in New Hampshire, and his showing in Iowa was quite respectable given how little time he spent there. Within days, the national polls will show Huckabee and McCain running one two in that order or the reverse order.

Huckabee has raised little money, but he did not need a lot of money to  win in Iowa. Chuck Norris served him at least  as well as Oprah served Obama. Mitt Romney came off too corporate, Huckabee more genuine, funnier and warmer. His achievement should not  be under-estimated.

Obama was seen as a serious contender from the start, even if not the favorite. Huckabee was an unknown a year ago, and is the only candidate to emerge from the second tier in either party, and to emerge needless to say, in a big way.

How far can Huckabee go? He is now the clear favorite in South Carolina on January 19, and is probably the favorite in many southern state primaries, and states with large evangelical populations.  If Romney, and Thompson, and McCain and  Rudy Giuliani all stick around for a while, he will win quite a few states. In a two man contest, against say McCain, I think he loses, maybe to wind up in the second spot on the ticket.

Huckabee, McCain and Giuliani have all shared a goal of keeping Mitt Romney from sweeping the early state races, and they have succeeded.  The main testiness in the GOP race has been Romney with Huckabee and Romney with McCain. Romney will not just give up, and he will fight hard to win one or more of the contests in New Hampshire, Nevada, Michigan, and South Carolina.  But his strategy of running the table in these states and becoming inevitable is  shattered. He has the money and will to go on, and is not out of the race. 

Rudy Giuliani finished 6th in Iowa, and  may suffer another bad defeat in New Hampshire, where Huckabee and Ron Paul may both pass him, pushing him to 5th. A series of bad defeats in all the early races, makes his planned comeback in Florida on January 29th less likely. He is not finished, but since he and McCain draw from the same well, McCain's upward movement  has coincided with Rudy dropping off. Fred Thompson needed to do well in Iowa, and while he did better than I expected him to do, it is not enough to get him the money or buzz needed to get back in the race.

So that leaves Romney, Huckabee and McCain, with the momentum with Huckabee and McCain.  Both Huckabee and McCain are problematic for large sectors of the GOP. The biggest difference between the two  is the potential for a win next November. Try as I might, I do not see how Huckabee cobbles together 270 Electoral College votes against either Obama or Clinton. In fact, he might lose very badly.

McCain would be a favorite against Clinton and 50-50 at best against Obama, unless the Obama glow wears off by then.  An Obama-McCain race would feature huge contrasts: age difference, experience, maturity, positions on the Iraq war. McCain is close to the center, and can  appeal to independents, like Obama. Their race, if it comes to this, would likely turn on whether foreign threats trumped the domestic agenda. At this point, more people want to talk about healthcare, the economy, the housing slump, than Iraq or Afghanistan or Al Qaeda.  That works to Obama's favor.

In the last 3 elections the winner in November also won Iowa. Last night might make it four in a row.

Richar Baehr is political director of American Thinker.