The first lesson to take from the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary is to throw the pundits, pollsters and kingmakers out the window. Armed with smug self-certainty and the slippery intelligence of numbers, they tried to declare the race for President over even before it began. First Hillary Clinton was crowned with the laurel of inevitability. Then, in the wake of Barack Obama’s impressive win in Iowa–where he outpolled his rivals among Democrats, Republicans and independents, men and women, blacks and whites, and across nearly all income levels–they flipped the script. Obama became the invincible “change” candidate, and Clinton was advised to drop out of the race so that she might, one day, enjoy the consolation prize of Senate majority leader. John Edwards’s second-place finish in Iowa, as well as his message of economic populism, were virtually ignored by the press, lost in the media storm around “change,” Clinton’s “tears” and a projected ten- to fourteen-point slam-dunk for Obama in New Hampshire. But Clinton won that state’s primary with a surge of women voters and strong late support from the traditional Democratic base.
The race for the Democratic nomination is on–and it will be decided not by trigger-happy pundits but by the voters themselves, who clearly see this as a watershed moment and are turning out in record numbers. There is still a path to victory for Obama, but as New Hampshire’s results show, he can’t prevail merely by appealing to new voters and independents. He needs to rally women, union members and the working and middle classes–i.e., the party’s traditional base. And he needs to expand that base, reaching out to the disempowered and dispossessed to fulfill the greatest promise of his campaign, which still holds the potential to forge a new Democratic majority. As he assembles this broad and disparate coalition, some key questions arise for progressives. Whose concerns will take center stage in his campaign and–if it is successful–in his presidency? What is the substance of the change he promises? And what is the meaning of his postpartisan talk? Will he take on–aggressively and concretely–the conservative ideology and corporate power that are the main impediments to a progressive agenda?
Next up is Nevada, home to 145,000 union members and a rapidly growing Latino population. Carried by George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, Nevada will be an important test of Obama’s ability to build a new coalition. He’s already sounding the themes that are likely to resonate: in his concession speech in Manchester, Obama echoed Edwards’s populist language, talking about how textile workers in Spartanburg, dishwashers in Las Vegas and little boys and girls in Dillon and Los Angeles share common interests. The coveted endorsement of the Las Vegas Culinary Union will help him, but he still needs to follow his words with bold policy proposals. Clinton, for her part, has also picked up Edwards’s populist themes (see “Populism’s Candidate,” page 6), as well as her share of union support.
Then the campaign trail turns to South Carolina, where African-Americans are 30 percent of the population. The contest for their backing between Clinton and Obama is shaping up to be a fierce one. The Democratic primary so far has been conducted on a fairly high level. Let’s hope that in the season to come, the candidates clarify and sharpen their policy differences rather than muddy the waters with negative personal attacks. With no exit in sight in Iraq, and as the country reels from the pain of home foreclosures and rising unemployment, there is simply too much at stake.