Strong winds swept through the political community on Monday night with the release of the latest Washington Post-ABC poll in Iowa showing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in second place for the Democratic presidential nomination. Her rival, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) led in the poll with 30 percent, Hillary trailed at 26 percent and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) was in third at 22 percent. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, auditioning for vice president, was fourth at 11 percent. This is the first primary or caucus poll nationwide or in any state in the nation this entire year that shows Hillary in second place!
The internals of the poll contain even worse news for Hillary:
• Obama is running even with Hillary among Iowa women.
• Of the 55 percent of Iowa Democrats who prefer change (versus the 33 percent who want experience), Obama leads with 43 percent to Edwards’s 25 and Hillary’s 17 percent. Being for change in a Democratic primary is like being for stability in a GOP contest. It’s the growth sector.
• Half of Hillary’s voters have not attended a previous caucus, versus 43 percent of Obama’s and 24 percent of Edwards’s. With the caucus system as complex as it is and the places of the meetings as distant as they are, previous attendance is a key indicator of the likelihood of their actually voting this time. If we assume no first-time caucus attendee will actually show up (an exagge ration but worth thinking about) then Hillary would finish third with Obama and Edwards tied for first.
So what does all this mean?
Can Hillary turn it around? She will increase her advertising and personal campaigning in Iowa, but so will her rivals now that they smell blood. The poll’s field dates were Nov. 14-18. The last national debate, in which Hillary had something of a comeback, was on Nov. 15, right in the middle of the sampling. It is possible that her stronger performance might tip some more votes her way, and she does have one more debate before the voting.
But consultant David Garth once said that the hardest thing to do in politics is change direction, and Obama’s and Edwards’s upward momentum, as well as Hillary’s slide, have gone on for three weeks now.
If Hillary loses Iowa, she will not be knocked out of the race. You can’t knock a long-term front-runner out with one punch. John Kerry did knock out Howard Dea n in Iowa, but the Vermont governor was a recent front-runner with limited national recognition and a limited funding base. The more likely model is Reagan versus Ford in 1976, Bush versus McCain in 2000, Mondale versus Hart in 1984 or even Bill Clinton versus Tsongas in 1992. In these cases, you have to beat a front-runner state by state. A one-punch or one-state win doesn’t spell the end of the race, only its beginning. (And remember, in all four examples, the front-runner came from behind to win.)
Hillary is strong in New Hampshire. Her average lead over the last five polls reported on www.realclearpolitics.com is 36 for Hillary, 23 for Obama and 13 for Edwards. Of course, New Hampshire is a county in Iowa. A hard defeat in Iowa would set Hillary back a good deal in New Hampshire. But she might well rally there or in Michigan, South Carolina or Florida down the road before she hits the national primary on Feb. 5.
If Obama wins in Iowa, he will face s everal key problems:
• Edwards will likely do very well in Iowa, so Obama will still have to split the anti-Hillary vote with him.
• Democrats will begin to wonder if an African-American can really win and if they really want to take a chance on a Republican victory by nominating Obama.
• And some will worry about Obama’s lack of experience, even though his real political experience is about as limited as Hillary’s. But by adopting Bill’s record as her own, Hillary can use her faux and vicarious experience to defeat Obama.
My bet is that if Hillary loses Iowa, she will rally to win New Hampshire and go on to win the nomination. But this is the first time she appears vulnerable.