By E.J. Dionne Jr.
MANCHESTER, N.H.—Iowa voters in both parties staged a rebellion against the status quo and against the past.
Mike Huckabee’s decisive victory over Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses marks a revolution in Republican politics. An outspent outsider triumphed over a former governor who played an inside game. Huckabee’s victory is also the revenge of evangelical Christians who had been taken for granted by the GOP establishment and decided to vote for one of their own, a Baptist minister turned politician.
Change, particularly generational change, was also at the heart of Barack Obama’s victory over John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. Voters under 30 supported him by better than 5 to 1 and he carried independents by more than 2 to 1, according to media entrance polls.
Clinton’s difficulties in the campaign’s next phase may be compounded by the fact that Edwards narrowly pushed her into third place. Edwards thus earned himself a second chance, if not a major boost. The polls suggested that Edwards’ message of raw, passionate protest won him support among voters who decided late in the campaign.
Obama’s theme of ending partisan divisions by reaching out to independents and Republicans may be an enduring legacy of Iowa. Indeed, at this initial milestone of the 2008 campaign, it’s clear that the Democrats are the party in the business of winning converts, and turnout at the Democratic caucuses broke all records.
The contrast between the two parties was stark. Romney has spoken often about the future, but his core message was about the past: that he was the candidate who could reassemble Ronald Reagan’s alliance of social, economic and foreign policy conservatives. Moreover, the emergence of Huckabee and the re-emergence of John McCain as a powerful contender in New Hampshire forced Romney to turn early to a negative campaign aimed almost entirely at keeping his party’s conservative base away from his opponents. He has appealed to yesterday’s coalition in the name of old orthodoxies.
It didn’t work, even with an Iowa Republican electorate that overwhelmingly described itself as conservative. That turned out to be a very small electorate, reduced to its evangelical core—six of 10 described themselves as born again—and that core loved Huckabee.
In the Republican field at this point, only McCain seems to be reaching beyond the GOP heartland, and this trajectory worries Republican professionals who wonder where this nomination battle will leave their party when it’s over. “There is an interesting contrast between these primary campaigns that ought to be troubling to Republicans,” David Winston, a pollster who works closely with congressional Republicans, said even before the results were in. “The top Democrats are thinking about how to expand their electorate to bring in independents, whereas the leading Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, is trying to depress turnout by pushing people away from his opponents.” Indeed, Romney may no longer be a leading candidate after his Iowa loss.
The Republican race has highlighted ideological divisions within the party—particularly on taxes, immigration and, to some extent, abortion. By contrast, the Democratic argument has been remarkably free of ideology. Democrats have battled more about how to get things done than about what to do, more about style than content. But the race could turn much harsher now that Obama’s foes, particularly Clinton, are fighting for survival.
Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary will have a much larger turnout, and independents—roughly 40 percent of the potential electorate—will play a far greater role than they did in Iowa. Independents are on the whole alienated from President Bush and his party and they seem likely to vote in large numbers in this state’s Democratic primary, as they did in the Iowa caucuses. This would benefit Obama. In a recent Franklin Pierce University-WBZ poll that gave Clinton a narrow lead here, Obama was drawing 46 percent of his support from independents, while Clinton drew 33 percent of her backing from voters who did not declare a party affiliation. By coming into New Hampshire strong, Obama may keep independents on the Democratic side. This could hurt McCain, who leans far more heavily on independents than Romney does. But Romney’s defeat in Iowa may obviate McCain’s need for independents.
One caucus does not a realignment make. But Democrats, particularly Obama, are fighting for the middle ground and the independents, while Republicans are largely talking to each other. Thus will Democrats have far less adjusting to do when the general election battle is finally joined.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group