Our Washington presidential precinct caucuses are only a few weeks away, on Feb. 9. As of today, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama seems the favorite candidate of Washington Democrats, with state Republican support spread among several candidates.
But the fact is that four days earlier, Feb. 5, is the Super Tuesday of this presidential election cycle – what amounts to a national primary. Super Tuesday will already have decided both major parties' presidential nominating races, making Washington's caucuses the following weekend irrelevant.
Primaries in New York, California, and Illinois, as well as primaries and caucuses in several other states, on that day will end a nominating process that in previous campaign years has often stretched into June. The general-election campaign, which traditionally has begun on Labor Day, will instead begin a full nine months ahead of election day. Any number of unforeseen developments during those nine months could leave the election year in chaos, or worse. But more on that later.
Here's what to watch for during this compressed primary season:
Iowa, Jan. 3: The Iowa caucuses will begin a winnowing in both parties, probably leaving no more than four viable candidates standing in each of the two nominating races. Beware beauty-contest polling numbers. The Iowa caucuses are complex, weighted toward the lightly populated western part of the state, and complicated by the fact that supporters of also-ran candidates (not reaching a required percentage of support) will allocate themselves to second-choice candidates, exceeding the threshold percentage. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama, and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards will finish one, two, or three on the Democratic side. The caucuses will be noteworthy for the Democrats only if one of those three runs an unexpectedly weak third.
Because Protestant evangelicals play a disproportionate role in the Iowa Republican Party, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will make a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses. But his nominating campaign is likely to run downhill from there. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson all are likely to outpoll Huckabee thereafter.
New Hampshire, Jan. 8: Republicans will hold caucuses in Wyoming Jan. 5. But the New Hampshire primary – not limited to party activists – will give a real upward or downward jolt to major candidates who run unexpectedly strongly or weakly there. Independent voters can cross over into either major-party primary. Barring the unexpected, all Democratic candidates but Clinton, Obama, and Edwards will be on the ropes and nearing withdrawal on Jan. 9. On the GOP side, next-door Massachusetts neighbor Romney and McCain should be favored. No more than four or five Republican candidates will remain viable Jan. 9. Money will be running short at this point for second-tier candidates.
A Jan. 15 Michigan contest is only partially sanctioned by the parties and will not have the impact it otherwise might. Several candidates will boycott it. On Jan. 19, both parties will hold Nevada contests. Republicans will contest on that date in South Carolina, as well. Democrats will hold a South Carolina primary Jan. 26.
Florida, Jan. 29: By now, both parties' contests should be down to no more than three candidates. Giuliani has the most to gain or lose in Florida. He has made only token efforts in both Iowa and New Hampshire and must run first or a strong second in Florida to generate the momentum and raise the money that will be vital to running a competitive race a week later in the multiple Super Tuesday contests. If he flops in Florida, Giuliani could be out of the game without ever getting to Super Tuesday. Clinton and Obama will have enough money to get to Super Tuesday, no matter what, but Edwards and any other Democrat must have won in an earlier state to get that far.
The Super Tuesday de facto national primary on Feb. 5 carries many perils. The compressed nominating calendar will give a tremendous advantage to candidates with money and name recognition. It will give voters only a comparatively brief time to know and make judgments about the candidates.
The nightmare of both parties, post-Feb. 5: Some scandal or event will cripple or destroy the candidacy of the nominee in the months between Feb. 5 and Nov. 4. What would happen in that event? A compromise candidate – say, former Vice President Al Gore on the Democratic side and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the Republican side – would be put forward at the party convention, or even later, to replace the fatally crippled nominee.
There is another strong possibility, that by April or May voters already will have tired of the major-party nominees and be looking for an alternative. Enter, in that case, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who could finance a campaign out of his own pocket, and a third-force insurgency of the center. Bloomberg is no Ross Perot, the cranky nativist who drew 19 percent of the total vote in 1992, and would be a truly competitive presidential contender – with a real possibility of winning outright, depending on the identity of the major-party nominees.
There it is. No incumbent candidate, early nominating decisions fraught with risk, and a process held hostage to internal or external events that could change the dynamics of the 2008 campaign overnight. It ought to be a Democratic year. But it could be anyone's year. Only a fool would bet big money at this early stage on any particular outcome.