That's why none of this is really important. At this point, we're not looking for the best nominee. We're just weeding out anyone who makes huge blunders. But why? Any Democratic hopeful who's made it this far is going to be too slick to make any huge blunders. And while the Republicans have a few newbie candidates who repeatedly screw-up (Thompson, Giuliani, and the supreme screw-up Bush), Republicans are largely immune to that kind of thing.
And so at this point, the best we can do is "Gotcha" Debate Questions designed solely to create blunders, and nuanced tea leaf readings, like Matthew Yglesias criticism that Obama's attacks on Clinton are too subtle. But we're not going to find anything of real substance, nor should it matter. Because even primary voters aren't really paying attention, and the general population is REALLY not paying attention. Sure, they'll notice if any huge blunder occurs, but that's it. And as I already said, I'm already sick of it all.
The Dean Machine
Of course, that's not to say I'm blaming the candidates. In fact, I have no problem with them going around and talking to people and whatnot. I just wish people would stop pretending the horserace was already going on. It's not. At best, this is the equivalent of the qualifying round, with the various participants jockeying for pole position. Sure, one of the candidates is likely to have an early advantage over the others once the real primary season starts, but anything can happen after that.
That's what we saw in 2004. Dean was leading the pack throughout much of the pre-primary season. Why? Because he had the hardcore followers who knew they'd vote for him. He sewed up the progressive-activist vote fairly early on, and as I said, these are the people most likely to pay attention during the pre-season. And so early polls showed him leading, because he had a sizeable minority sewed up.
But the problem was that the type of Democrat he was appealing to were already supporting him, and he wasn't able to pick-up the more moderate Democrats. The ones who only really start learning about the candidates when the primary season begins. And while the Dems who supported him were much firmer in their support than the ones who supported Kerry, Kerry had more supporters in the end. And maybe they would have gone to Edwards or Clark, but they certainly weren't going for Dean. And that's all that mattered.
And so Dean had the pre-season wrapped-up, but with a strategy that wouldn't help in the primary season, and might possibly have buried him in the general election. And sure, there was a strong element of the media establishment being against him, but I really don't think that's what sank him. I think the problem was that he was never really as popular as people imagined. He polled well because he had hardcore supporters early on, but the more people started actually learning about the candidates, the less he'd pick anyone else up.
The Popularity Contest
And we see a similiar issue with Hillary Clinton, which is the reason I wish people would stop pretending the nomination is hers. Not that she has a loyal following like Dean did, but she has name recogintion. She's simply more famous than the other candidates. And that's important right now, because so few people are actually paying attention. And so if you ask the average Democrat who they'll support, Hillary's likely to be an obvious choice. But not because they've been studying the issues and know where she stands on Iraq and Iran. But because they know her name.
And we see the same thing with all the candidates. The famous candidates are leading the pack. On the GOP side, we currently see Giuliani leading with Thompson coming in behind. Big surprise. They're the two most famous candidates. But neither of them stand a good chance of winning. As Carpetbagger mentioned, people indicated that they liked Giulani for social issues, when that's actually one of his biggest weaknesses. And it's my opinion that they're picking him because they know his name. And that's also why Romney is polling in last of the top four GOP candidates; because he's the least known; despite the fact that he's going to be their next nominee (IMHO).
And that's my theory on all this. Most people just aren't paying attention. When asked who they vote for, most of them are just going with the name they recoginize. But that's not likely to continue. Not that I have the strongest faith in the electorate, but I'm confident that many people gain knowledge on this stuff when it's actually time to vote. Sure, there's some herd instinct and whatnot, but right now we're not seeing any of that. We're just seeing name recognition, and that's just about it.
So on the GOP side, we have the savior of 9/11 and a famous actor leading the pack. On the Dem site, we've got a notorious first lady and a good looking black guy with a funny name. And frankly, I think that looks much better for us. At least our top two stand a chance of winning and deserve to be considered top choices. Giulaini and Thompson are nothing but jokes. But as I've confessed to before, I had once imagined that Thompson was a good candidate, until I actually learned something about him.
And that's exactly what's going to happen with most people. They recognize Fred Thompson. They've heard some vague praise of him. And so they imagine he's a decent name to pick when asked who they'd vote for. But once the heat is on, that's all going to change. Same with Giulani. He's still coasting on the 9/11 thing, but that won't last. And so this whole prediction business is nonsense. While I'm fairly confident that Romney's getting the GOP nomination, it's still an open game on the Democratic side. And that's how it should be.