The importance of Iowa
Strictly speaking, maybe Iowa isn't so important—it yields up a mere 48 (or thereabouts) convention delegates and a paltry seven electoral votes. But once the nomination is secured, it's still a swing state, a place where Republicans and Democrats are competitive. Between 1988 and 2004, Iowa has gone Republican only once—in 2004—but it was close during all those contests. In the general election, whether a state is large in population or small, candidates will fight to win there if the vote is close. No one who wants to be president will sneer even at a trifling three electoral votes if he can win them.
Hillary Clinton has definite woes with the Iowa caucuses. The mere fact that she hadn't been way out ahead in the polls all along has tarnished her inevitability some, but the fact that she came in third in Iowa finally gives some solid evidence to those who want to make the case that she's not inevitable. She can still win, but she can hardly be called inevitable. And given that she's run her whole campaign as if she were the incumbent, now that she's losing, supporters have to wonder what the reason for her campaign is anymore. She could win in New Hampshire, but if she doesn't, she's in big trouble. She'll still play well enough in New York and New Jersey and maybe Massachusetts and Connecticut—strong Democratic states that are among the 22 holding their primaries on February 5—but that same day we'll also see primaries in Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona and Alaska, among others. If she can't show that she can win in different regions of the country, her national viability will really be exposed. I expect California to be a real contest, the single state which has the largest number of delegates and a winner-take-all primary. She could win there, too—but so could Obama. Unless Clinton melts down some time this month, I see a real dogfight in the Golden State.
Perhaps the most unbeatable ticket that could come out of either party right now would be Edwards/Obama, but it doesn't look like Edwards is going to pull it off (and I doubt that Edwards would want to accept another running mate position.) He probably won't do well in New Hampshire (on January 8,) and if he doesn't do well in South Carolina (on January 26,) he's probably cooked. Edwards might be able to eke some support out of the Nevada caucuses (January 19,) where he's got a lot of union support, but Clinton's held a firm lead there for a while, and no one's really bothered to campaign in the Silver State yet. The Democratic Party moved its caucuses to January 19 in order to give the early contests more regional variety, but for some reason, Nevada's been ignored. Maybe it's just habit: people have been thinking of the linear Iowa-New Hampshire-South Carolina train for years. Too bad for Nevada.
Edwards is a native of South Carolina, and it's his native North Carolina's more conservative neighbor, so if he doesn't do well there, it hurts him all the more. Clinton held a lead in South Carolina for a long time, but Obama has eaten into it recently. South Carolina's large population of black Democrats have been moving toward Obama in recent weeks, and yesterday's win in Iowa will probably boost him in the Palmetto State. Edwards will probably stick it out through February 5, when he might do okay in the Oklahoma primary like he did in 2004, but after that, he'll probably drop out. If Hillary Clinton can win enough large states on February 5, she'll stay in. States with primaries after February 5 include Maine, Maryland, Washington, Nebraska, Louisiana, Virginia, Hawaii and the District of Columbia. If someone can maintain a lead in those states, then the March 4 primaries (in Rhode Island, Vermont, Ohio and Texas) won't matter. My hunch is that it'll be over before then, but if it goes to March 4, it probably won't go past March 4.
As to the Republicans: Huckabee would be squashed in the general election, if nominated. He won't play well in the Northeast. Romney won't play well in the South. McCain won't play well among social conservatives and a certain kind of fiscal conservative. Worse for McCain, Obama's rise will siphon independents who would otherwise pull the lever for McCain in the primary states where you can vote for whoever you want despite party affiliation. This is the fruit of the Republicans' pandering to the Christian right for the past thirty years: it's nearly impossible to find a viable candidate who appeals both to the religious conservatives and the starve-the-government libertarians in the Republican Party. This has always been an awkward coalition, and without Ronald Reagan or his two inheritors—the George Bushes—it's awfully hard to hold together. Just ask Bob Dole.
The Ron Paulist cult has been exposed, but it won't make much difference. The Paulists will continue on in their way, and everyone else will continue to be indifferent toward them. Some of the liberals who have been embracing Ron Paul strictly on his anti-war vote might move back to the Democrats and back Obama. There's a lot to be said for being the kind of politician who's interested in reaching out to everyone, as Dr. Paul shows.