Usually, around this time of year, I write a column about other people’s New Year’s predictions — and draw up unlikely (but possible!) scenarios that the conventional wisdom could be missing. This worked great four years ago, when I first started this tradition — I was almost alone in pointing out that Howard Dean’s nomination was not a foregone conclusion. But now that the most wide-open presidential race in decades is upon us, saying we don’t have any idea what’s going to happen in the coming year is roughly as insightful as noting the wetness of water. There are so many ways this one could break, contingent on so many discreet events, that any forecast begins to read like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, where the bottom of every page gives several possible paths (“If McCain wins in New Hampshire, turn to page 108…”).
It all starts tonight, with the Iowa caucuses. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama are in a three-way race for first on the Democratic side. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are jockeying for first on the Republican side, with John McCain and Fred Thompson competing for third.
How will Iowa affect the New Hampshire primaries five days later? If Edwards comes in third, he’ll probably drop out, allowing Obama to consolidate the anti-Hillary vote. If Edwards comes in second and Obama comes in third, Clinton will be in a great position to win New Hampshire, where she’ll have the momentum and her opposition will be divided. The division among anti-Hillary Democrats will be an important dynamic even if Edwards wins, though that obviously would make Edwards more of a contender (he’s currently well behind both Clinton and Obama in New Hampshire polls).
The Democrats’ race affects the Republicans, too. If Obama wins Iowa, he’s likely to attract New Hampshire independents, who are allowed to vote in either primary. That’s bad news for McCain, who seems to have passed Romney in the New Hampshire polls — but whose 2000 victory in New Hampshire depended on the independent vote. If Romney and Obama both win Iowa, Romney will be well-positioned in New Hampshire, especially if Thompson edges out McCain for third in Iowa. If Huckabee beats Romney in Iowa, Romney’s momentum going into New Hampshire will be slowed (though it’s worth noting that Huckabee himself is unlikely to be a factor in New Hampshire), and a third-place finish by McCain will give him a boost going into New Hampshire.
If your head isn’t spinning yet, consider how tonight’s caucuses will reverberate later in the month. As of mid-December, Mike Huckabee was leading in the South Carolina polls. But he needs an infusion of campaign resources — volunteers, cash, etc. — to have any chance of translating those poll numbers into electoral success on January 19, when South Carolina Republicans vote. He won’t get any such infusion without an Iowa victory. If Fred Thompson doesn’t finish a strong third or better tonight, there’s a good chance he’ll drop out of the race, putting his supporters up for grabs and shuffling the deck once again.
This month we’ll also see contests in states that have never been involved in the nominating process this early. The Wyoming Republican Convention, where that state’s delegates to the national GOP convention will be selected, is on Saturday. Michigan is holding primaries on January 15, though the Democratic primary won’t actually select any delegates because its early date violates Democratic National Committee rules. The Nevada caucuses for both parties are on January 19. How will these races be covered? Will the winners get any bounce in other races? No one knows, because it’s never been done like this before.
It follows that no one knows what the race is going to look like on January 29, the day of the Florida primary. That’ll be merely a beauty contest for the Democrats — like Michigan’s, Florida’s early primary violates DNC rules — but for the Republicans it could prove quite important. Rudy Giuliani’s strategists point out that the winner-take-all rules that govern Florida’s race will mean that whoever wins Florida will probably go into February 5, when 19 states will hold primary elections, with a delegate lead. Team Rudy is betting that their guy can hang onto his lead in Florida without winning anything between then and now. No one is sure whether this strategy can work; it’s never been tried, because the calendar has never looked quite like this before.
You can see, Dear Reader, why I’ve decided to can the ruminations over New Year’s predictions. Forget about the year ahead: It’s hard enough to tell what’s in store for the next five weeks. Also: Water is wet.