BATON ROUGE, LA. — As of now, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York is the front-runner for her party's nomination for president in 2008 in fundraising, name recognition, and poll numbers. But under the radar of public and press, the contest could tilt even more in her favor.
The Democratic National Committee will vote in February on whether to accept a recommendation by one of its special commissions to insert one or two new first-tier caucuses and new primaries based on "criteria [of] racial and ethnic diversity; geographic diversity; and economic diversity including [labor] union density."
On the assumption that she were to run, this change could prove to benefit a 2008 Clinton presidential campaign by positioning "safe" Clinton states immediately after Iowa and New Hampshire. As history attests, Bill Clinton established himself as a front-runner even after losing both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1992 by winning Southern states with huge African-American Democratic bases. Similarly in 1984, Walter Mondale's campaign was saved by victories in Georgia and Alabama after Gary Hart's strong second place in Iowa and upset win in New Hampshire.
The move proposed by the DNC is cleverly and credibly positioned as a plea toward "diversity." For several generations in the arcane procedures of presidential nomination races, there have been two distinctive standouts: Iowa and New Hampshire. The first-in-the-nation caucus and the first-in-the-nation primary possess disproportionate power in media attention, campaign spending, and candidate time.
A perennial challenge to the dominance of the Little Big States is the envy of much larger states whose political leaders feel that their states better represent the party and the nation as a whole. Certainly, Democratic voters in Iowa tend to be less diverse in several demographic categories than, say, the electorate of Florida or Michigan. But opponents of the present system have failed to make any changes because they could not agree on which state would take the lead in any new rank order of primary contests and they fear the wrath of its present beneficiaries.
The proposed scheduling change reflects the desire of a number of Democrats, such as members of the Congressional Black Caucus, to follow Iowa with "diversity" states such as South Carolina, which has a large black population, or perhaps another state that has a larger Hispanic population.
Good deed activism aside, however, a complicated stealth proxy is at work on behalf of the probable future Clinton campaign for president. Despite her bulging war chest and survey numbers, she is vulnerable. In a hard-fought campaign, the many negatives associated with her husband's tenure might begin to tell. Also, she is currently experiencing a wildfire revolt on her left flank with activists and left bloggers unhappy at the senator's moderate and even conservative positions on issues such as an anti-flag- burning amendment and the war in Iraq.
Her best hope for the nomination race is to blow out all competition early. And her greatest bulwark is her high level of support from black Americans and black Democratic officials. Bill Clinton was famously dubbed America's "first black president," and this two-way attachment was reflected when he won Georgia, South Carolina, and many Super Tuesday states where African-Americans make up a huge percentage or even a majority of the voting Democratic base. As newsman Jim Lehrer put it in '92, Clinton, after a string of early losses, came "back from the dead ... with a lot of black votes."
Hillary Clinton's assertion that the House of Representatives "has been run like a plantation, and you know what I'm talking about" to the worshippers at a black church in Harlem during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, however controversial in mainstream media, was simply an attempt to personalize her own credentials with her inherited base. So was her support of "faith-based initiatives" while in Boston recently speaking at a fundraiser for religious charities headed by a black minister.
With such goodwill among a key Democratic constituency, the senator hopes for what sports fans know as a "three-peat" of the Clinton "southern" election strategies of '92 and '96. If Senator Clinton were to suffer an early reverse, it would be to her advantage that Democratic Party leaders build some friendly firewalls between and after the contests in the Hawkeye and the Granite states.
The current period of seeming campaign doldrums has been called "the invisible primary" because of the lack of press and public scrutiny relative to the frenzy of the formal campaign season. But key political players are making decisions now that may narrow the selection of our next president. We all must pay attention to who is altering the rules of the game and why. The proposed changes to the nomination race schedule are reasonable and respectable, but the process itself - who backs the changes and why - deserves wider debate.
• David D. Perlmutter is an associate professor and a senior fellow at Louisiana State University. He is writing a book on political blogs for Oxford University Press and edits policybyblog.squarespace.com.