Several months ago, John Edwards lead the Democratic field in Iowa, a consequence of his long-term campaigning and heavy support in the state left over from his 2003 primary bid. In response, and fearing to give Edwards the opportunity to score an opening win, both Clinton and Obama began heavily campaigning in the state. For some time, the Iowa race has been a statistical tie, with Clinton having a lsight edge over Obama and Edwards.
In the most recent polls, however, Obama has gained a slight edge with 30%, with Clinton at 26% and Edwards at 23%. As many pollsters point out, the difference between Obama and Clinton stil falls within the margin of error. So why the big deal?
The big deal, of course, is that it shouldn't be happening at all. As Iowans get closer to the actual caucus, the conventional wisdom goes, they should be making up their minds and deciding to go with the front runner. But they're not. True, Clinton still leads in national polls, and some pollsters believe Republican women would cross party lines to vote for Clinton and thus make her the more electable candidate -- a thing voters in Iowa and NH are purportedly looking for above all else (but really blew in 2004). So why is Obama climbing, Edwards falling, and Clinton remaining fairly constant?
My personal feeling is, as I have said before, that mainstream media and democratic pollsters have radically underestimated the anti-Hilary sentiment among Democratic voters. And the folks with serious doubts about Clinton's character and coziness with special interests have not been comforted by the steady stream of campaign finance issues, campaign stumbles, and -- for those wonky enough to care about substance -- challenges from the progressives that her platform does not address key issues for the progressive crowd (in my neck of the woods, it's the absence of net neutrality in her tech agenda).
In looking at the support for Edwards and Obama, the question is how much of this support is linked to the specific candidate and how much is "anybody but Hilary?" Edwards supporters with a strong anti-Hilary feeling may be shifting to Obama as the most likely candidate to deny Clinton the nomination.
Of course, there are other things working in Obama's favor. Recent press coverage of Obama reports him as "hitting his stride," reconnecting with voters, and recovering the charismatic qualities that made him such a rock star in 2004. And Obama has been making significant strides in the progressive community, at least in my neck of the woods. So the trend may represent a pro-Obama shift, an anti-Hilary shift, or a combination of the two.
Of course, it remains to be seen what happens. Clinton could still recover, the race could stay a 3-way tie going in to NH, or Obama could start to pull away. Clinton has many strong advantages, including a base that is impossible alienate and strong support within the Democratic machine. But a loss for Clinton in Iowa, or even the lack of a clear win, will inevitably be perceived as a set back. Given the rapid piling on of primaries and caucuses -- the failure for a clear front runner to emerge in Iowa may create a splintered race that fails to resolve before the Convention. But while all political junkies pray for such a conclusion, few hope to see it.