RICHMOND, VA.—Can this race be any closer? Not the race for the Democratic nomination, but the one for the runner-up.
The nomination is all but wrapped up after John Kerry's trouncing of the field Saturday in Michigan and Washington. Not only has Kerry racked up wins in nine of the 11 states so far, but he's won a majority, not just a plurality, of the Democratic vote in four states: Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, and North Dakota. And according to CNN's numbers, Kerry held a slim majority of the state delegates racked up in Washington state, too, with 99 percent of the precincts reporting. Up to now, Kerry-haters could at least comfort themselves with the fact that more than 60 percent of the Democratic electorate in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire were picking a candidate other than John Kerry. They don't even have that thin reed to cling to anymore.
A race that had political journalists salivating over its unpredictability in the days before the Iowa caucuses has instead unfolded exactly as it was designed. Terry McAuliffe drew this one up on the chalkboard during the pregame. The condensed primary schedule has worked just as intended, by anointing an early front-runner who is rolling through the nominating process without being forced to undergo a long, drawn-out fight with another candidate. (Howard Dean's boom and bust weren't in the McAuliffe plan, but since Dean's rise occurred before a single primary or caucus was held, it's not relevant to this analysis—except to the extent that the compressed schedule speeded his fall.)
For those who didn't like McAuliffe's plan, its one redeeming characteristic was that it would let bigger, more populous states go earlier than usual, thereby giving them a larger say in the process. But the hope that a compressed schedule might give less power to Iowa and New Hampshire than in previous cycles has proven to be a fantasy. In fact, in this election cycle the pattern has been that the larger and more important a state is, the less campaigning goes on there. On Feb. 3, Missouri and its 74 delegates were basically ignored. Washington, with 76 delegates, was an even bigger prize than Missouri, but most candidates other than Kerry and Dean ignored it, too. With 128 delegates, Michigan is the biggest state on the schedule until March 2, but on election day, Kerry, John Edwards, and Wesley Clark were all in Tennessee and Virginia. (Virginia, granted, has 82 delegates, but it looks like Edwards and Clark are choosing to duke it out in the smaller state of Tennessee.)
The marginal benefit of campaign expenditures and campaign appearances is increased in smaller states. The fewer voters there are in a state, the higher the percentage of them that can be swayed by a TV ad or a stump appearance. Plus smaller states are just cheaper to campaign in for cash-poor candidates. So, the upshot of the McAuliffe plan has been to increase the attention paid by presidential candidates to more small states than ever, beyond the usual first-in-the-nation duo.
The one scenario that would muck up McAuliffe's plan would be a closely contested race between two or even three candidates, each of whom racked up wins in enough states to prolong the battle beyond March 2 or even March 9. Which brings me back to the close race I mentioned at the outset. So far, this campaign has been outstanding at anointing front-runners—Kerry, then Dean, then Kerry—but astonishingly poor at figuring out who the top-ranked challenger is.
At long last, we found the anti-Dean—that's Kerry—but now there's a new problem. Who's the anti-Kerry? If delegate count is the critical factor, after his second-place showings in Michigan and Washington, Dean leads everyone but Kerry. But Clark and Edwards have a pretty good claim over Dean: They have each won a state, while Dean hasn't won any. If finishing as close to the top as possible when you come in second is the criterion, Edwards has the strongest claim. Clark, Dean, and Edwards have each placed second in three contests, but Edwards has two close second-place finishes—coming within single digits in both Iowa and Oklahoma—while Clark and Dean lost badly each time they were first runner-up.
But Clark and Dean have ways that they can counter Edwards. Thanks to five third-place finishes, Dean has finished in the top three in eight of the 11 states so far. Clark has done that only six times, and Edwards has done it five times—less than half the time. Can a candidate who finished below third in six states make a straight-faced claim that he deserves a one-on-one shot against Kerry?
But wait: Edwards has been one of the top four candidates in all 11 states. Dean placed fifth twice, in Oklahoma and South Carolina, while Clark finished fifth three times, in Delaware, Michigan, and Washington. And Clark finished sixth in Iowa, where he admittedly didn't compete, but sorry, you don't get to choose which states are in the union.
Should Dean be disqualified because he lost to Al Sharpton in South Carolina? What about Clark, then? He's lost to Sharpton twice—in South Carolina and now in Michigan. Edwards has consistently beaten the reverend, but he lost to Dennis Kucinich Saturday in Washington. Clark, however, has lost to Kucinich twice—in Iowa (where Clark didn't run, but still) and in Washington. Dean has the ignominy of being beaten by Joe Lieberman twice, finishing behind him in Oklahoma as well as Delaware, where all three men—Clark, Dean, and Edwards—couldn't defeat Joementum.
Right now, Edwards looks like the candidate most likely to survive and become Kerry's sacrificial lamb on March 2. Edwards hopes that Clark loses Tennessee on Tuesday and then bows out of the race, and that Dean quits after a loss in Wisconsin a week later. That would leave Edwards with two weeks before March 2—and the intervening Hawaii, Idaho, and Utah contests—to convince voters that he has a better chance of beating President Bush in November than Kerry does.
I'm sure Edwards would like more than two weeks to make his case. But that's no reason to clear the race for him.