BRATISLAVA, Slovakia, Jan. 4 (UPI) — I have been telling the European political classes that U.S. elections are complicated. I have been explaining to them that U.S. presidential primaries can take unexpected turns. And so Democrats and independents in Iowa, a state that is 97 percent white, delivered the best in U.S. political theater — they gave Sen. Barak Obama of Illinois a convincing victory.
In October 2007 I attended a fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York with Carol Grose, the Democratic Expat Leadership Council co-chair. It was just outside Windsor, England, and former President Clinton was the drawing-card. There were some 150 expats present. During the evening, I spoke with some young staffers and volunteers. They, like the Clinton team, presented the senator’s primary victory as a foregone conclusion.
On this evening outside Windsor, they were convinced they were working for the president-in-waiting. Even the former president, eloquent as ever, presented the senator with an air of inevitability. In brief words to me, he was very fair toward the other candidates as well. But one staffer, who I greatly respect and who served President Clinton, gave a signal of caution. “It’s far from over, Marc.”
A week later I had joined a fundraiser for Obama’s campaign in a venerable London hotel. His wife, Michelle, was the guest of honor. We later had a chance to speak. She was quite remarkable.
At the time, Obama was down in the polls. I had talked to my friend Diana Shaw-Clark, one of the evening’s hosts and an American who lives in London; “He must win,” she said to me. Later I had drinks with Charles Adams, the other co-chair of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council. We both agreed the primary season would bring some unexpected surprises our European friends would not quite understand.
The son of a white woman from Kansas and an African from Kenya, Obama did what few believed possible. In a state that has never elected an African-American to federal office, Obama took 38 percent of the Democratic caucus vote and rewrote history. He even won a plurality of the women vote — further shocking the Clinton campaign.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina was second with 30 percent, and Clinton finished a close third with 29 percent. Edwards would state later, “Today the status quo lost; change has won.” He was referring to the fact that 70 percent of the caucus-goers voted against Clinton; 220,000 showed up — nearly double the number from 2004 — but it did not help the senator from New York; it didn’t help Edwards win, either.
And while the Iowa victory is Obama’s to celebrate, the primary season is far from over.
In the next four weeks more than two-thirds of the Democratic delegates will be given out. Primaries will be held in New Hampshire on Jan. 8, followed by Michigan (Jan. 15), South Carolina (Jan. 26) and Florida (Jan. 29). The big day will be Feb. 5 — Super Tuesday — when 24 states hold primaries, including New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Minnesota and California. Never has a primary season been so compact. The Democratic race will be over. Republicans will also give out the lion’s share of their delegates, but they will unlikely have a clear nominee.
In the Republican Iowa caucus, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee upset former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, something I forecast in a recent op-ed. Sen. John McCain of Arizona came in third, and he might still be the Republican nominee. I still believe he will win in New Hampshire, and he should not be counted out yet. It is predicted that former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who had entered the race with great fanfare, will drop out to become a footnote in history. I actually quite like Thompson.
And where does that leave the U.S. election year?
A prominent Democrat recently said to me, “You know, Marc, there has never been an election that Democrats can’t lose.” He was being tongue-in-cheek. But in his words there was a warning; the primaries are not the election. And despite President Bush’s unpopularity, the election is not over. Democrats have often lost elections they should have won. Like Clinton, the Democratic Party should not believe in the inevitability of victory. It is still a long, hard fight.
Clinton had never lost an election — Iowa was her first defeat. She counted on having the strongest team on the ground — it did not help. She counted on the women’s vote — a majority voted for her opponents. She had labor unions behind her — they did not deliver.
She lost her invincibility in Iowa, but it would be a mistake to write her off. Her concession speech sounded more like a victory speech — and her campaign might actually find that Iowa was a needed loss — a loss that put her back on track. Those who know the senator well know she is tough, gritty and focused. She will regroup and recalibrate her strategy — anybody who thinks otherwise is misguided.
But in this first contest of the year, it was indeed Obama’s historical moment:
“They said this day would never come. They said we set our sights too high. They said we cannot unite. Tonight we prove them wrong. We are one nation, one people — and our time for change has come.”
(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, he is a member of the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party.)