I’ve done more than my fair share of tramping the streets of Iowa and bracing the snow of New Hampshire in the past, mainly because the much-hyped caucus and primary elections there are practically the only time when national US politicians literally wear out shoe leather and even come face-to-face with, horror-of-horrors, real people.
Very quickly, though – certainly within a month – the shutters come down when definite Republican and Democratic presidential candidates emerge – and one, at least, then stays cocooned surrounded by Secret Service men for the rest of his life. (This time, given the current hatreds running through the American bloodstream, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have quietly had Secret Service protection for months.)
But for the past week I’ve spent most of my time in DC, vainly trying to explain to Brits why they shouldn’t pay too much attention to whatever turned out to be the political verdicts of 212,000 Iowans – 0.11 per cent of the American electorate, according to my calculations – on Thursday night.
There would, I explained, be a plethora of headlines in the British papers on Friday morning that could range from ‘Hillary’s the Gal’, or ‘It’s President Huck-To-Be’ – to, quite possibly, ‘Barack Storms His Way To The White House’ or even ‘Hillary: It’s All Over’.
Yes, the early primaries can be crucial in building what George H W Bush liked to call “the Big Mo” – but they can also turn out to be stunningly irrelevant. Take none other than Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton: both lost Iowa, but then went on to win two-term presidencies.
Candidates have to take the strategic gamble either of pouring money and resources into the early small states in the hope of building the big mo, or waiting for the more important ones to come on Super Tuesday. Bill Clinton lost practically all the early primaries, then famously pronounced himself – accurately, as it turned out – to be “the comeback kid” on Super Tuesday the next month.
I’d say it’s now touch-and-go whether Barack Obama, following his victory over Hillary Clinton in Iowa, can now maintain the big mo up to and beyond Super Tuesday on 5 February.
Perhaps significantly, post-caucus analysis of his victory in Iowa on Thursday night showed his support came overwhelmingly from the youngest generation of voters – while Hillary’s main bloc of votes came from the over-sixties.
That makes sense: Obama is a spectacular orator who can carry away the politically innocent en masse into moist-eyed enthusiasm, but he will now come under a merciless spotlight.
He is woefully inexperienced in foreign affairs – more so, believe it or not, than George W Bush was when he entered the White House (he, as Texan governor, had at least held negotiations with the Mexican government) – and has failed to convene one single meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s European Affairs sub-committee, which he is supposed to have chaired for the past year.
But he has the funds and fame and perceived glamour to sustain his momentum, and Hillary’s support may now dramatically subside – although Iowa was never going to be one of her stronger states, and both Clintons possess a steely resolve rare in politics.
And on the night of Obama’s Iowa victory she was still 21.2 points ahead in polls across the nation. She remained seven points ahead for next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, too, 20 ahead in Nevada, 0.6 in South Carolina and a whopping 24.8 ahead in Florida for its 29 January primary.
Could she be the “comeback girl” by the time 22 states, including the giant of California where she is currently 19 points ahead, go to the polls on 5 February?
Iowa was certainly a distinct setback for Clinton, but it was quite possibly a fatal one for Mitt Romney on the Republican side. The ultra-smooth 60-year-old Mormon put all his eggs into the basket of the early states to get the big mo, spending more than $7m on attack ads in Iowa alone.
But his slick, ultra-élite background as the near-billionaire former liberal governor of Massachusetts did not go down well with the ruddy-faced Republican farmers in rural Iowa – and the more they saw him the less they liked him. (Yes, I know my description of Republicans in Iowa is a cliché – but there’s some truth to it, too.)
So what happened on the Republican side? Exactly what the New Statesman predicted, of course. “Step forward 52-year-old Mike Huckabee,” I wrote in the NS in early November last year – just about the first reference anywhere to the rank outsider, as far as I can see, as a serious presidential contender.
I pointed out then that the guitar-strumming Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor – he was even born in Hope, Arkansas, too – is a likeable fellow amidst a field of flawed oddballs like Romney or Rudy Giuliani, who is keeping his powder dry for the later big states and, like Hillary, remains his party’s frontrunner.
But Huckabee is as ignorant of foreign affairs as Obama – last week he got hopelessly confused about Pakistan and where its borders are – and his appeal to the so-called Christian Right will be much weaker next Tuesday in the politically aberrant, rough-and-ready New Hampshire. Huckabee and John McCain, who was devastated to finish fourth in Iowa, are still neck-and-neck just behind Giuliani in the national polls.
I’m looking forward to the scrutiny that Obama will now face and can’t help wondering whether his halo may now begin to slip. Thursday night in Iowa, Obama modestly told his adoring young fans, was “a defining moment in history.” Perhaps significantly, he started playing the race card he has assiduously avoided in his campaigning up until now: a major strategic error, perhaps? “You have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do…the moment when it all begun,” he roared. Maybe. You should never underestimate the gullibility of an American electorate that can put George W Bush into the White House for two terms, but I still have my doubts about Barack Obama’s suitability to become America’s 44th president.