The first presidential primaries I covered were in 1980. Jimmy Carter was president. If you think Donald Trump is doing miserably with his approval ratings in low-40s, consider the plight of the peanut farmer: He was at 28 per cent.
Teddy Kennedy was primed to knock him off. Mr. Kennedy led him by 30 points months before the Democratic primaries began.
On the Republican side a cavalcade of big-name candidates sought the nomination. There was Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and media favourite John Connally, the tall, strong-willed former governor of Texas. Many of us thought we might see a Kennedy-Connolly battle for the presidency.
Mr. Connally already had his sights set on Mr. Kennedy. I recall his acidic response when at a stop in Charleston, S.C., someone challenged him on his views on nuclear energy. “I’ll tell you one thing,” he shot back. “More people died at Chappaquiddick than at Three Mile Island.”
But what happened in 1980 was a warning to us pundits who jump to conclusions. Mr. Carter defeated Mr. Kennedy. John Connolly’s campaign barely got off the ground. The nomination instead went to Mr. Reagan who Democrats underestimated at the time, referring to him as the amiable dunce.
In the primaries, this happens often. Early favourites fall away. Think of Gary Hart or Howard Dean – his dream killed by a scream – or Hillary Clinton in 2008, or Jeb Bush.
The lesson learned is not to bank on anything. Shift happens.
In the current campaign, Bernie Sanders got hit by a heart attack, and his chances have cascaded. Elizabeth Warren was in the single digits in April; she is now neck-and-neck with pacesetter Joe Biden. Kamala Harris of “that little girl was me” fame was on a roll a few months ago. She’s nowhere now.
It’s a two-way race, the experts are telling us. Biden versus Warren. Moderate versus liberal.
But is it? With not even one primary in the books, how can anyone be so sure? Until the Iowa caucuses take place on Feb. 3, all handicapping is hasty, half-cocked, heedless of history.
Iowa and New Hampshire frequently rearrange the deck. A candidate from the lower tier need only finish in second or third place in Iowa and it’s enough to get the talking heads all worked up and bestowing the Big Mo to the lesser Joe.
This Democratic race is remarkable in that there are still 20-plus candidates. All except three are way down in the single digits in support. But one, at least one, is bound to make a move.
Who’s got boomlet potential? That would be South Bend, Ind. mayor Pete Buttigieg. It’s because among the also-rans, his support in Iowa is strongest.
For other reasons, Mayor Pete could capture the public imagination. He’s fresh, he’s young, he’s thoughtful, more nuanced than knee-jerk. He has a military background and he’s from the Midwest – a hunk of geography important to the Democrats. He is a Washington outsider, he radiates integrity, and he is a media darling.
How he sees politics differently was in evidence on a recent trip through Iowa. “There’s this desire to carve the world up into good and bad people, and carve the electorate up into good and bad people,” he said. “Trump has a way of doing it. My party has a way of doing it. And it misses the need for a certain humility about the good and evil we’re each capable of.”
On the downside though, Mr. Buttigieg is seen as being too young and inexperienced. His being openly gay may reduce his appeal. He has little traction with African-American voters. If he does well in Iowa, can he follow up? New Hampshire is home territory for Elizabeth Warren, who is from neighbouring Massachusetts. In the next big primary state, South Carolina – where the black vote is heavy – Joe Biden is miles ahead of everyone.
But there is so much uncertainty. The Sanders health setback could see his support, which was fading anyway, bleed away quickly. Mr. Biden’s age and halting performances seed doubts as to whether he’s the one. Ms. Warren will face increased scrutiny over her radical policies.
The door is still open for a Buttigieg or an Amy Klobuchar or a Cory Booker. The primaries haven’t even begun. Someone will catch fire. It always happens.
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