Well, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee took the top spots in Iowa, and by some impressive margins. Obviously, they’re the big winners tonight as they have momentum into the next crucial contests—New Hampshire for Obama and South Carolina for Huckabee.
The big losers: the former frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney. Clinton can afford to lose Iowa and still keep in the game. If Romney loses to McCain in New Hampshire, I don’t see him remaining viable. He has the money, but he needed to win Iowa or at least finish close to Huckabee. Losing New Hampshire would sink his campaign.
There are two Republicans who should feel good about Iowa who aren’t Huckabee: McCain and Thompson. McCain will probably win New Hampshire, which takes Romney out of the race. Thompson could then benefit from Romney’s loss as his supporters could easily go his way based on conservative credentials—but he’s going to have to tailor his pitch to put them on his side rather than McCain. Thompson needs to do well in South Carolina to stay viable, which means that McCain and Huckabee have to take some dings before then. In some ways, this situation benefits him the most. Iowa and New Hampshire take out Romney, which narrows the field and leaves conservatives looking for an authentic conservative choice—and my guess is that Thompson has a lot more appeal with National Review-style conservatives than McCain and certainly more than Huckabee.
Edwards also places, which keeps him alive. The problem is that Obama could easily steal his thunder, and his speech in Iowa was lackluster at best. In some ways, it would have been better for him to switch places with Clinton—if Clinton and Obama end up clashing, he could come up the middle.
The problem with Iowa, especially on the Republican side, is that it’s an outlier state. Huckabee’s win won’t necessarily translate elsewhere. Remember that in 1988 George H.W. Bush lost in Iowa. In a contest like this where there’s no clear front-runner, Iowa’s narrow reach may not mean all that much.
On the Democratic side, it’s a three person race between Obama, Clinton, and Edwards. On the Republican side, it’s increasingly looking like the race may boil down to McCain, Huckabee, Thompson, and possibly Giuliani. In neither case is the outcome certain. Obama’s lack of experience may hurt him when he comes up in the big states like California and New York. A Romney loss in New Hampshire puts a big bloc of voters who don’t much care for Huckabee at play between McCain and Thompson. Edwards could sweep the South, putting himself in play.
Right now, my guess would be that if Thompson doesn’t do well in South Carolina, John McCain will be the Republican nominee. Huckabee is too divisive. For the Democratic nomination, I’m leaning more towards an Obama win, although I wouldn’t count Hillary out yet.
Obama, to his credit, does signal a break from the Clintonite school of politics which have corrupted American politics for years now. The “campaign war room” and the politics of personal destruction that marked the Clinton years hardly helped America’s politics. Getting rid of that would be a step in the right direction. The problem with Obama is that he’s winning on some vague notion of “change”—while doing little to describe what direction he’d take the country. Obama would be a formidable challenge for the GOP, but ultimately he doesn’t have the executive experience needed to be a successful President. He also votes like a doctrinaire liberal, which undercuts his ability to reach across party lines. He would do better than Edwards, but in the end his appeal is largely skin deep.
The worst case scenario is an Edwards/Huckabee match, in which case I’ll say to hell with it and end up voting for Ron Paul just out of spite for such big government paternalists. Ideally, I’d like to see an Obama/Thompson contest—Obama’s idealism is a nice contrast to the general pessimism of the Democratic Party, and Fred Thompson has the strongest grasp of policy. An Obama/McCain race would also be interesting for much the same reason.
What the ripple effects of Iowa may be are not quite yet apparent. Hillary Clinton is certainly down, but she’s not out. The same may not be true for Mitt Romney. Will Mike Huckabee cruise to the GOP nomination and end up splitting the party? Could John McCain consolidate the conservative vote after his now-likely New Hampshire win? Iowa has provided an interesting start to the formal 2008 race, but its only a start. What happens in the next few weeks could provide quite a few more surprises for us all.