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Bounces Are So 2004

Lessons from the primaries so far.

11:00 PM, Jan 15, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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IN 2004, John Kerry was puttering anemically along in the polls until he broke through with victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. All the old paradigms held true as those triumphs trampolined the haughty senator to the Democratic nomination.

There were a few dynamics present in 2004 that made it easy for Kerry to enjoy an enormous bounce from the early states. First and foremost, Kerry was a boring, predictable, doctrinaire liberal. In other words, the Democratic party found him perfectly acceptable, even likable. Next, Kerry had no serious opposition after his early victories. The most qualified guy in the field, Dick Gephardt, folded his campaign tent after Iowa. The least qualified guy in the field, John Edwards, fought on. And the wildcard, Howard Dean, made what would have been an improbable comeback impossible with the infamous Dean Scream.

But that was then and this is now. Bounces are so 2004.

None of the candidates who have won primaries have seen a Kerry-like bounce from their victories. Barack Obama seemed like a lock to tear down the House of Clinton once and for all after his win in Iowa. It didn't happen.

Meanwhile, Republicans have been redefining the depressing dimensions of a dead-cat bounce. Forget the fact that none of the candidates have been able to put together even a modest two state winning streak. Here's something even more dramatic: On January 5, three days before New Hampshire, Rasmussen's national tracking poll had John McCain at 20 percent and Mike Huckabee at 18 percent. Yesterday, a week after his Granite State victory, McCain had soared all the way to 22 percent. Huckabee had also picked up two points and stood at 20 percent.


So why no bouncing? The trendy theorists will probably credit a variation of the Feiler Faster Thesis, or FFT as the cool wonks call it. FFT holds that in a faster paced society blanketed by blogs and other life-quickening plagues, news cycles churn more quickly. As a consequence, primary results that were big news when they occurred get supplanted by Britney Spears's latest woes before the next state's voters hit the polling booths.

The FFT is a brilliant observation, but it's not why there's been no bouncing on the Republican side in 2008. Lest we forget, Barack Obama has received a discernible and significant bounce from his Iowa victory, even if it hasn't been of the same magnitude as Kerry's. On the morning of January 3, before Iowans trudged out to their caucuses, Obama trailed Hillary in the Rasmussen national tracking poll by 17 points. His deficit in the polls composed of exclusively post-New Hampshire numbers has hovered between two and seven points.

Yes, Obama has seen a more modest bounce than John Kerry did, but his Iowa win still amply illustrates the fruits of a prominent caucus or primary victory--the voters will reward the winner with a closer look. Obama benefited from their scrutiny. Democrats liked what they saw. But he didn't run away from the pack because he faced far more formidable opposition than Screamin' Howard Dean.

Like Obama, Republican winners have also won a closer look from the voters. The increased scrutiny hasn't been the undiluted blessing for the Republican victors that it's been for Obama.

Iowa conqueror Mike Huckabee is a problematic candidate on many levels for many Republicans. No one really expected New Hampshirites to take a closer look at Huckabee and flock to him in droves. Nevertheless, many analysts thought he would do better in New Hampshire than he did. Much of the whispering in the fashionable Nashua salons frequented by the high-end pundits forecast Huckabee passing Romney in New Hampshire and earning the Granite State's silver medal. Close students of recent history know that didn't happen.

Like Huckabee, John McCain is also a problematic candidate for many GOP voters given the way he found himself opposing so many conservative causes over the past seven years. One would have expected the spotlight to treat McCain like a poorly aged starlet, and that's exactly how it's worked out so far. Ever the iconoclast, McCain seemed oddly determined this week to highlight some of the more arcane differences he has with the GOP, ones that would especially damage him in Michigan. In a debate, he called attention to his concern over climate warning. Later, he vowed not to drill for oil in ANWR.

In the three polls of Michigan voters taken between Iowa and New Hampshire, one showed McCain winning by nine over Romney. The other two polls showed McCain trailing Romney by one and four points. Reputable outfits conducted all three polls. (Not a Zogby among them!) And yet yesterday, McCain lost by nine.