As a Republican, I have watched in fascination as many in my party, the media and most of the Democrats have not only all but given Hillary Clinton the Democratic nomination, but have continually speculated how she will do against the Republican nominee. As they do this, I can't help but wonder how real life, human nature, media reporting, take-no-prisoner politics and recent history will play into such predictions.
In conversations I've had with two well-placed Democrats, they are anything but confident about Mrs. Clinton securing the nomination. According to them, if she goes on to lose Iowa, then "all bets are off."
If either Barack Obama or John Edwards beats Mrs. Clinton in Iowa, a strong case can then be made that Mr. Edwards, not Mrs. Clinton, not Mr. Obama, will be the eventual Democratic nominee. That case would be built on the strong desire — bordering on desperation — of Democratic voters, and some in the media, to bring an end to eight years of Republican White House rule.
While Democrats won't talk about it publicly as it goes against their vow of political correctness, behind the scenes, a number of them wonder if the America of 2008 will be "open-minded and mature enough" to actually elect a woman or an African American. Former Rep. Harold Ford dealt with this question during his run for the Senate in Tennessee in 2006. What pollsters discovered is that whatever number of voters said they were going to vote for Mr. Ford, they had to subtract about 10 percentage points from that number to get close to the truth. Will such a scenario plague Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama? Recent history indicates it could.
If the Democratic primary voters get skittish with regard to the overall electability of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, who will be the natural beneficiary? Politics of the day seem to point toward Mr. Edwards.
Again, let's take a look at recent history. It has been suggested that, back in 2003, neither mainstream Democrats nor many in the media felt Howard Dean had what it took to defeat the despised George W. Bush in 2004.
While that is a subject that can be debated, what cannot be argued is that in December 2003, Mr. Dean had an all but "insurmountable" lead over John Kerry. It was at that time that generic stories started to spring up "reporting" that Mr. Dean seemed to be dropping a bit with Mr. Kerry rising. Next, just 11 days before the Iowa Caucus, NBC News dropped a bomb on Mr. Dean with their "unearthed" clips of Mr. Dean from a Canadian news show titled "The Editors." The clip NBC showcased was one from 1999 where Mr. Dean seemed to criticize the process in Iowa.
No surprise that Mr. Dean went on to lose the Iowa Caucus. Later that evening, after losing, Mr. Dean gave his now infamous "I have a scream" speech. Next, between that night and the New Hampshire primary one week later, the media played that clip more than 600 times. It was assault and battery by the media and Mr. Dean was down for the count as Mr. Kerry won New Hampshire on his way to the nomination.
What must be remembered in all of this is just a couple of months prior to that primary, Mr. Kerry was tracking in the high single- or low double-digit numbers in many New Hampshire polls. Because they border Massachusetts, those voters knew Mr. Kerry well and never liked him. But, when Mr. Dean was blown up by the media, the voters decided that Mr. Kerry was the only "viable" candidate left.
It should be noted that after that network assault, Diane Sawyer of ABC News called the heads of the other networks for on-the-record quotes, asking if they overplayed the Dean scream. She reported: "With the exception of NBC News (which started the destruction), they all said collectively the media did overplay it." CNN said, "if we had to do it again, we'd pull ourselves back." Little solace for Mr. Dean but a real lesson for those who try to predict presidential primaries. Until actual votes are cast, anything can happen at any time.
As this ugly process plays out, the question should not be who's inevitable, but rather, who's next. Mr. Edwards seems to be third in line for take off, but if Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama crash and burn ahead of him, it may be clear skies all the way to the nomination.
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