Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Some Tiers Must Fall

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 572

I’ve been watching, with interest, the fanfare greeting the news that New Mexico Governor and Presidential candidate Bill Richardson has gotten a bump in the polls of late.

This started a couple of weeks ago with the release of a CNN-WMUR TV poll that showed Bill Richardson had climbed to 10% in New Hampshire, and in so doing moved even with John Edwards there. Governor Richardson’s numbers began to rise after a widely-praised ad campaign built around a “Presidential job interview” theme. Then, earlier this week, Richardson’s campaign announced that its own internal polling now shows their candidate at 13% in Iowa, which, if you disregard the 4.4% margin of error, would put him ahead of Barack Obama here. Finally today, announced that it has added Richardson to its “Top Democrats” ranking, based on its findings that Richardson alone among the candidates is experiencing a substantial upturn in his numbers in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Richardson’s campaign, of course, has eagerly seized on these developments, today alone sending out not one, but two emails drawing attention to their candidate’s numbers and going so far as to proclaim “Richardson Officially Breaks into Top Teir.”

Let me hasten to say that I don’t question the legitimacy of these latest polls or the use made of them by the Richardson campaign; indeed, I would do the same. What I do question, though, is when and how in the course of this historically dynamic campaign there came to be a top tier of candidates to begin with.

For example, if I were writing on this topic a year ago, any discussion of top tier candidates would have included Tom Vilsack, who, as outgoing Governor of Iowa would at that time have been presumed to exert disproportionate influence upon the campaign in his home state, in very much the same way as Tom Harkin in 1992. Following the accepted wisdom of the time, I would undoubtedly also have written about John Kerry’s generally anticipated second run for the White House, and the impact on the race of his name recognition and 3 million-plus member email subscription list. Vilsack, of course, withdrew his candidacy back on February 23, and Kerry opted not to get into the 2008 race all.

This brings us to today’s “top tier” of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and, so as not to quibble, now Bill Richardson. Each candidate has taken a different road to arrive in the “top tier,” but they all, Richardson excepted, since he only today “officially” arrived among them, have three things in common: good poll numbers, good fund raising numbers, and lots and lots of free media. None of these things, of course, measures the actual strength of anyone’s ground game here or in New Hampshire (has anyone else noticed that Dodd just opened 8 new field offices in Iowa?), ignores the outcome of the South Carolina and New Hampshire debates (as I’m sure Joe Biden’s people would hasten to point out), and provides absolutely no guidance as to future trends.

Which is to say that handicapping the candidates into ordinal tiers at this stage in the campaign is meaningless. It is all trying to call the result of a horse race before the track has even opened. If the outcome of presidential campaigns were determined by Vegas odds makers or media pundits, then graduate students in political science today would be laboring over theses on the history of Thomas Dewey’s presidency and the legacy of Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 landslide reelection.

I’m not trying to deny Bill Richardson, or anyone else, their day in the sun. I’m merely pointing out how fast the weather can change.


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