Obama's Iowa Victory Fits Democratic Trend

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, January 7, 2008

According to conventional wisdom, front-runners win presidential nominations. Democrats and Republicans who start the race for a presidential nomination with the largest amount of money and the best poll numbers are supposed to be the ones most likely to walk away with victory months later.

The conventional wisdom took a battering last week when neither the Democratic nor the Republican national front-runner won the Iowa caucuses. Hillary Rodham Clinton came in third, and Rudy Giuliani ignored the race altogether.

But the victories of an African American barely two years removed from the Illinois state Senate and a virtually unknown Arkansas governor conceal the deeper patterns that govern the nomination process -- a pattern that portends fresh surprises in New Hampshire and beyond.

Barack Obama's win and Clinton's poor showing in Iowa are not so much surprises as much as confirmation of the trends that govern the race for Democratic nominees, said political scientist D. Jason Berggren. But, he said Mike Huckabee's win in Iowa was deeply at odds with historical trends.

Berggren, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, has found that the conventional wisdom about front-runners is true, but only for Republicans -- GOP candidates who start the nomination race with the best numbers and the most cash usually win.

The pattern reverses itself among Democrats. From Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton and John Kerry, Democrats who win their party's nomination are often candidates that few people take seriously a year before the Iowa caucuses. To put it another way, if you look at polling data a year before the Iowa caucuses, Democratic nominees going back more than 30 years rarely had national name recognition, let alone national support.

The eventual Republican nominee usually had national name recognition, blood ties to former Republican presidents or nominees, or was an early front-runner.

"Republicans tend to go with the early front-runners whereas Democratic front-runners, barring vice presidents like [Walter] Mondale and [Al] Gore, tend to fall by the wayside" in nomination races, said Berggren, who published his findings about the patterns in Democratic and Republican primaries in Presidential Studies Quarterly. "Since 1952 to 2004, with the exception of 1964, Republicans have had a Nixon, a Dole or a Bush on their national ticket."

From this point of view, Hillary Clinton's poor showing in Iowa is merely more of the same: "For someone with all these credentials to possibly lose Iowa and possibly New Hampshire says a lot about the Democratic Party and the nature of the Democratic Party," Berggren said before the Iowa caucuses. "They like to shake things up."

Political scientist Wayne Steger at DePaul University agreed that the instability of the GOP race was surprising by historical patterns, but he said the Democratic race this year has also been unusual. Clinton has been a solid front-runner from the start, and Obama has been a strong contender for months -- whereas the Democratic field is typically less stable.

Steger said Democrats generally tend to be more divided, because the party includes many constituencies. The GOP instability this year, he argued, suggests a similar dynamic unfolding among Republicans, with social conservatives clashing with economic conservatives and the party establishment.

Berggren said that in as much as historical patterns are guides to future behavior, his analysis suggested the GOP nomination would eventually go to Mitt Romney, the son of a Republican governor and presidential candidate, or John McCain, the early front-runner in the race for the 2008 nomination.

Besides the GOP passion for Nixons, Doles and Bushes, Berggren identified another curious pattern that might help McCain: In part because they tend to go with familiar choices rather than dark-horse candidates, Republicans regularly nominate presidential candidates who came in second in the last open nomination race -- that is, in the last race without an incumbent Republican president.

Ronald Reagan finished second in the 1976 GOP primary and won the nomination in 1980. George H.W. Bush came in second in 1980 and won in 1988. Bob Dole came in second in 1988 and won the nomination in 1996. McCain came in second to George W. Bush in 2000.

While Huckabee's victory in Iowa would be predictable if he were a Democrat, Berggren argued that the former Arkansas governor is the kind of candidate likely to face stiff winds in New Hampshire and beyond -- an insurgent from a small state who runs into the GOP predilection for blue blood.

While Obama's chances of winning the Democratic nomination might have the winds of history at his back -- especially given the role of momentum in a front-loaded nomination race -- Steger cautioned the nomination was not a done deal. The same Democratic predilection for underdogs that contributed to Obama's win in Iowa could pose problems if he should be anointed the front-runner.

Columnist Shankar Vedantam and political scientist Jason Berggren will discuss voting behavior today at noon. Go tohttp://www.washingtonpost.com/behavior.

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