The inability of any of the three Democratic front-runners to establish a clear lead in Iowa is raising the obvious question of how the media would interpret a virtual three-way tie between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards.
Actually, it wouldn’t be the first time there were three Iowa “winners” on the Democratic side. In 1988, Richard Gephardt, Paul Simon and Michael Dukakis all finished within a few points of each other in the caucuses. And the fallout from that result suggests that a split verdict in Iowa would ultimately be good news for Hillary.
Consider the similarities between the two campaigns.
The official Iowa winner in ’88 was Gephardt, then a youthful sixth-term Congressman from St. Louis who ran as a trade protectionist and all-around champion of the little guy. An underfunded afterthought in national polls, he staked his nomination strategy on a breakout showing in Iowa. Consider him the ‘88 equivalent of John Edwards.
Finishing three points behind Gephardt was Simon, the distinctive journalist-turned-Illinois-Senator who was adored by the reformer/intellectual wing of the party—sort of like Obama, another Illinois Senator, is now.
And then there was Dukakis, the seemingly emotionless Massachusetts Governor who scored a solid third place, just behind Simon. Dukakis entered Iowa as the national front-runner, powered by the best-funded and best-organized machine on the Democratic side—much like the one Hillary has assembled.
So who benefited from the Gephardt-Simon-Dukakis draw?
In the short-term, they all did. Gephardt passed the viability test that had been established for his candidacy. Simon, who was better positioned then Gephardt in the post-Iowa states, retained his spot as the chief (non-Jesse Jackson) national alternative to Dukakis. And Dukakis, whose wife draped a bronze medal around his neck at his caucus night party, was saluted for holding his own far away from Massachusetts—and in the backyard of his two main rivals.
But it quickly became clear that Dukakis was the chief beneficiary—mainly because the result assured that the opposition to him would be split, and not consolidated. Gephardt’s numbers suddenly climbed in New Hampshire and in other states, bringing him up to Simon’s level—but no further. And with Gephardt rising, Simon was unable to increase his own base of support and to challenge Dukakis.
In New Hampshire a week later, Dukakis claimed a long-anticipated victory with nearly 40 percent of the vote—miles ahead of second-place Gephardt (21 percent) and third place Simon (17 percent). Had Gephardt lost Iowa badly, he almost certainly would have dropped out before New Hampshire, giving Simon a clear shot at Dukakis in that state. Even a close second might then have been enough for the media to declare him the real “winner” in a state where Dukakis had so many advantages. Simon would then have been in serious contention for the nomination. (Conversely, a clear Gephardt win in Iowa coupled with an awful Simon showing might have had the same effect on Gephardt.)
But the muddled result allowed Dukakis to win a clear victory in New Hampshire and prevented both Simon and Gephardt from uniting the Anyone But Dukakis bloc of the party.
Obviously, there are numerous ways in which 2008 and 1988 are not alike at all. But one lesson of the ‘88 experience seems clear: Any primary or caucus result that isn’t a clear loss for the front-runner is a victory.