Cook On Concord: ‘Tis the season (for political prognostication)

Finally, after Michigan cleared the way, New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner set the New Hampshire presidential primary for January 8, much earlier than it has ever been held before. Following New Year’s Eve celebrations, it will be straight politics through the primary, with the Iowa caucuses taking place on the January 3.

Following New Hampshire, the Nevada caucuses will take place, then the Michigan primary, and various other contests will culminate in a virtually national primary on Feb. 5. The entire process is so front-loaded that the effect of the schedule on minor candidates and those less than immensely funded is hard to contemplate.

Such front-loading makes the results of the Iowa caucus and the “momentum” factor coming into New Hampshire important. Likewise, those who come out of New Hampshire in first and second place in each primary will have a lot of momentum heading South. On the other hand, should a minor candidate or one underfunded make it out of New Hampshire and Iowa, there will be little time to turn a strong showing into a fully funded race in February.

At a Nov. 27 discussion held by the Forum on the Future in Bedford, various political commentators and scholars examined the primary schedule and the fortunes of the various candidates at that moment.

Andrew Smith, University of New Hampshire political scientist and pollster, started with a review of where various candidates stood in the most recent polls.

In a Republican primary, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts was ahead, with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani having dropped below Arizona Sen. John McCain’s position, with other candidates trailing. In Iowa, on the other hand, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was strong, with Romney and McCain also registering.

On the Democratic side, Iowa showed a real horse race with no one dominating, but with candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards all possible factors. Smith was quick to point out that the race in both parties is subject to great flux between now and the voting. He compared the race to the same distance out from the primary four years ago and reminded listeners that Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was ahead by about twenty points at that time, before any primaries or caucuses had been held, and Dean won none.

Another UNH political scientist, Dante Scala, rated the candidates in various brackets, noting that you could win the momentum by doing best among the minor candidates and predicting that whoever the top two candidates among the major candidates were coming out of Iowa, the third-place finisher was probably finished, whereas someone beating expectations among minor candidates might live to fight another day.

Advertising strategies have started to evolve. Much of Romney’s strength in New Hampshire is credited by observers to his constant bombardment of the airwaves. His message has gone from softer to harder, with new ads appearing after Thanksgiving that focus on core Republican social and economic issues, including immigration, marriage, family and budgets. McCain has begun to air ads that have gone from his record as a prisoner of war to more substantive economic and policy issues, as well.

On Thanksgiving Day, Edwards had a very pleasant ad about all the things to be thankful for, followed immediately by an ad threatening to take health insurance away from members of Congress and the Cabinet, using his supposed power as president. (The last time I checked, Congress got to decide its own benefits.)

Obama’s ads continue to be a thing apart, not attacking but telling the candidate’s story. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s ads try to identify who he is. How money, strategy and media converge as the primary gets closer will be instructive and important to all candidates.

“Issue ads” by “independent” groups will get worse as Jan. 8 approaches, but how these integrate with the Christmas season will be a careful balancing act for those writing and broadcasting the ads.

Because of the front-loading process, the apparent winner probably will be known in each party by the middle of February. Rather than providing a thoughtful process, this may create a “rush to judgment.” Whether the voters get tired of the presumptive candidates, whether they think better of them, whether there will be sufficient time for the evolution of candidates and their positions given the rush to vote is unknown.

What is clear is that all the prognosticating in the world pales in significance to what the voters actually do on a winter night in January in Iowa and all day on a cold Tuesday in New Hampshire.

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.