A Revealing Start in Iowa
The first votes in the 2008 presidential race favor proponents of change in both parties.

Friday, January 4, 2008

YESTERDAY'S Iowa caucuses provided some intriguing first indications of voters' sentiments. They gave former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee a convincing victory and a chance to make his case for the Republican presidential nomination, and raised questions about the appeal of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who once led the race and was far ahead in spending. Among Democrats, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) clearly bested former senator John Edwards and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and made himself his party's front-runner heading into Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.

These are two impressive wins, with high turnout in historical terms, but at the same time it would be best not to get carried away by the results. In both parties, caucusgoers were a small and unrepresentative sample of a small and unrepresentative state. Republican caucusgoers tend to be more socially conservative than their counterparts nationwide, Democrats more liberal. Entrance polls last night showed that more than half of participating Republicans described themselves as born-again Christians or evangelicals, a far higher percentage than in other parts of the country and a factor that clearly propelled Mr. Huckabee's victory.

Nonetheless, Iowa may have exposed the vulnerability of Mr. Romney, and the limits of his high-dollar, PowerPoint-to-victory campaign. Though he spent enormous sums of time and money in the state, it turned out that Iowans didn't especially like what Mr. Romney was selling, nor did they trust his shifting stances on immigration, abortion, gun rights and other issues. By contrast, even though Mr. Huckabee was short on cash and organization, his message combining economic populism with social conservatism managed to catapult him into a position that had seemed unimaginable several months earlier.

Iowa also hinted that Democrats may value the messages of uplift and change offered by Mr. Obama more than the seasoning of Ms. Clinton or the angry populism of Mr. Edwards. The entrance polls showed that half of Democratic caucusgoers said the ability of a candidate to bring about change was the most important factor in the election. Still, with each trailing Mr. Obama by seven or eight percentage points, Mr. Edwards and Ms. Clinton remained contenders. In contrast, several worthy Democrats who counted on Iowa to make them competitive -- Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- lost out, with only Mr. Richardson recording support of at least 2 percent.

As the campaign moves to New Hampshire and quickly beyond, we hope the discussion on some issues also moves closer to usefulness. Both Mr. Romney and Mr. Huckabee sank to disappointing lows in their discussion of immigration. The apparent recovery of Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) -- who collected 13 percent of the Iowa vote without seriously campaigning there -- offers some chance for a more enlightened discussion of this controversial topic as the campaign proceeds. Likewise, the Democratic debate ought to advance from its current crowd-pleasing rhetoric, whether about "ending" the war in Iraq or dumping the No Child Left Behind law, to grapple more seriously with the challenges that will face the next president.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company