What Difference Does Iowa Make?

I've talked with several Democratic friends in the last 24 hours about the Iowa Caucus, and the surprising 1-2-3 finish of Sen. John Kerry, Sen. John Edwards and Gov. Howard Dean. Some think that things now look pretty good for Kerry, whose fortunes had been falling since Howard Dean's campaign took off last summer. Some feel that Kerry is what the party needs: a tough, (true) war hero, with foreign policy experience and the look and presence of a statesman. (It doesn't hurt that his wife has enough money to match Bush's fundraising single-handedly, should she care to.)

John Edwards was an even bigger surprise than Kerry. By playing the nice guy to everyone's attack-Dean strategy, he apparently scored points with Iowans who want a nice candidate to represent them. If nothing else, his showing increases his chances of having a job come next January. (He gave up his post in the Senate to run.) I wonder whether his alliance with Dennis Kucinich helped him at all -- I've heard no reports of whether it did.

Howard Dean was the biggest surprise. Until a few weeks ago, he looked like the frontrunner in Iowa and New Hampshire. (Of course, Gephardt looked like a probable second two weeks ago, and he finished fourth and summarily dropped out of the race.) Ever since Dean charged ahead in fundraising, the GOP and the Bush team have been attacking and misrepresenting Dean as: too liberal, too conservative, easy for Bush to beat, a pacifist, another McGovern, another Dukakis, too angry, too short, from too small a state. The corporate media has dutifully delivered Karl Rove's message, and apparently it's sunk in for a lot of Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike. The main message: Bush is undefeatable, and Dean is unelectable.

Is Iowa a good predictor of success? It hasn't been since 1976. But finishing in the top three is important, if not absolutely necessary. New Hampshire isn't a particularly accurate indicator of ultimate success, either, but a strong showing there creates momentum moving forward.

It's easy to forget, given the attention that Iowa and New Hampshire have received this time, that these are just two small states. It's a huge leap to conclude that results in these states reflect the sentiments of the electorate on a national level. But that is what the winners would have us believe.

Who is the frontrunner now? It comes down to money and organization, and on both counts Howard Dean is still in the lead. Wesley Clark raised a lot of money in the last quarter, and Kerry and Edwards should expect a big boost from their Iowa showing. It's a four-man race, now, to be certain.

If Dean doesn't win or finish second in New Hampshire, is it all over for his campaign? Maybe, but it shouldn't be. A friend asks, will it be two and out for Dean, the "worst collapse since the UVa men's basketball team, which at one point two years ago was ranked #4 in the nation, then missed the NCAAs?" I doubt it. Dean is a fighter and his campaign is unusual in that it's a grassroots movement unlike any seen before in American politics.

The larger question is, what difference does Iowa make? And who has the greatest say in determining the Democratic nominee? Al Gore, Bill Bradley and Tom Harken endorsed Howard Dean, but that may not have mattered much to Iowans. The media has played favorites with Gen. Wesley Clark and denounced Howard Dean at almost every turn.

Most voters still haven't a clue of what distinguishes Kerry from Edwards from Dean from Clark. Many still won't know come Election Day. But if the winner of primaries in two small states in January determines who represents the Democratic Party in November; if Democrats in New York and California don't matter as much as those in Iowa and New Hampshire, then maybe it's time we take a close look at the process and consider making some changes.