Despite growing sympathy for a populist message, Edwards appeared unable to break out of the same core group of supporters that he has carried since 2004 (i.e., people like me). This does not bode well for his future campaign. Part of his problem, of course, is his struggle for exposure. Even with the massive infusion of money in the final days by SEIU, and some media attention around a last minute surge, the media focus has consistently been Clinton v. Obama.
For Obama, it's good news on every level. He has emerged as the inspirer and the uniter. Exit polls report him capturing a whopping 57% of the under 30 voters, who showed up in droves to vote for him. He also did better than Clinton with women, and better with independents than Clinto or Edwards. His message appears to be: I can give change without the confrontational edge that Edwards offers.
Of course, the race is far from over. My feeling is as follows (below cut):
Clinton: Faces real challenges, as she campaigned heavily on "electability." But Obama's huge showing in white Iowa with independents and women is a potent argument that plenty of folks are "ready" for a black president and that Obama's inspirational qualities play well with an electorate tired of confrontation and business as usual.
So how does Clinton recover? She needs to persuade NH voters that she can be a sincere, open and honest leader. That means admitting to past mistakes and coming out hard on something other than the Iraq War. She also needs to find some way to be inspirational beyond the possibility of the first woman President.
Even if Clinton loses NH, she can recover by staying alive until Super Tuesday and capturing NY, California, and other states where her superior war chest, superior organization, and status as the machine candidate is a powerful advantage against the equally well-funded but potentially less well organized Obama. But Clinton's chief selling point has been her aura of inevitability, which will take a serious blow if she has yet to win a primary before Super Tuesday.
Possible wins between NH and Super Tuesday include: MI (stripped by DNC of delgates for holding primary too early), Nevada, South Carolina, Florida (stripped of delegates for holding primary too soon), and South Carolina. But all of these pose serious challenges. Because MI and FL were stripped of delegates, the front running Democrats pledged to honor party sanction and not run in those states. Nevada is heavily SEIU, who back Edwards, and is the most likely target for Richardson for a win as a Western Governor. South Carolina was seen as a likely Clinton win because of Bill Clinton's popularity with the African American civil rights community. But Obama's win (and Oprah's endorsement) may cause many to reevaluate. In addition, South Carolina was Edward's only win in 2004.
While Clinton is unlikely to drop out until after Super Tuesday, she will be in bad shape if she goes into Super Tuesday with no wins. On the plus side, if she wins NH, she will be able to persuade voters that Iowa was an early misstep that has been corrected and the coronation is still on. Clinto must weigh whether to break her promise to avoid campaigning in MI or FL. OTOH, it would appear as a desperation move and anger her core supporters within the party machine. OTOH, she may need a win somewhere to demonstrate that she CAN win.
Edwards: Edwards has not demonstrated an ability to break out of his core base. Worse, while Iowa was a three-way tie until the end, NH has always seen Edwards a distant third. Unlike 2004, his win in Iowa is not a surprise that causes people to take a second look. While nosing out Hilary for second place is good, he can't escape the fact that voters (especially independents) largely selected Obama as an agent of change rather than Edwards.
Edwards needs to hope that his strong populist message registers better in NH than it has so far. If he stays strong in NH, even if he doesn't finish first, he can hope for two victories in Nevada and South Carolina. If Edwards fails to carry either of these states where his core supporters are strongest (unions in NV, impoverished progressive white people in SC), he's toast. Unlike Clinton or Obama, he has no money and no organization outside the "early win" states. Edwards strategy has been to do well enough to encourage voters to give him a chance. That may still work, but the good but not great showing in Iowa is unlikely to attract attention.
Edwards also must consider how much he wants to campaign in MI, where his brand of populism may prove quite attractive. There isn't a lot of time, and it may come down to a choice between bowing out of a sure loss in NH to win a symbolic victory in MI. But a symbolic win before Nevada and SC may be worth it to show that he can win.
Obama: Obama has suddenly become the front runner and therefore the man to beat. Polls show him leading in NH. A win (particularly a strong win) in NH would make Obama the undisputed front runner and provide him with huge momentum going in to South Carolina. It would be proof that Iowa was not a fluke, and that Obama can appeal to white, working class voters crucial to wins in the swing states. The challenge for Obama is maintaining the level of inspirational intensity he has achieved in the last few months and avoiding any appearance of "triangulation," the strategy of tacking toward the middle advocated by many strategists as preparation for the general election but despised by the party faithful as a sign of politics as usual.
Richardson Richardson remains alive as the one "also ran" that did well enough to get a ticket to NH. Richardson has polled reasonably for fourth place in NH. If Richardson beats out Edwards for third, he can still go into the Nevada primary with a decent chance.
If Richardson wins Nevada, he can hold out for Super Tuesday and hope to win the Southwest block of AZ, NM, Utah, Col. and OK. It would also boost his standing in CA, which might fracture so badly that no front runner in CA emerges.
While Richardson is unlikely to win enough delegates to win the nomination even under the best of circumstances, he can hope to deny the front runners a clear win -- especially if Clinton and Obama split the large delegate states like NY (Clinton), IL (Obama) and if CA fractures. Richardson can also hope for a decent showing in TX. That could potentially leave it to the super delegates -- where Richardson stands a decent chance as a compromise candidate with a wealth of experience. Or he can swap support for a VP spot (he's a good VP choice anyway).
One thing for sure -- the fun now starts in earnest.