This year's Democratic presidential candidates are mapping out very different routes to the White House than the established path of previous cycles, adding to the unpredictability of the race, and giving a host of new states - and new constituencies - a potentially significant voice in the process of selecting the party's nominee.
Several campaigns are already employing nontraditional tactics with some success: Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and retired Gen. Wesley Clark are reaching out to potential voters over the Internet, tapping pockets of support both in and outside of the usual Democratic activist blocs, and using online buzz to raise money and generate on-the-ground organization.
General Clark is also challenging conventional wisdom when it comes to the length of the campaign, having only joined the race last month, yet vaulting to the top of national polls.
At the same time, the heavily front-loaded primary calendar - with an unusually crowded and competitive field - has pushed many campaigns to target their resources in new ways, trying to break out of the herd by focusing attention on places such as South Carolina and Arizona instead of Iowa and New Hampshire. Clark and Sen. Joseph Lieberman are skipping the Iowa caucuses altogether, while even those candidates competing in Iowa are looking ahead to other states.
The overall effect may be a broadening and diversification of the primary process. With seven states holding primaries just one week after New Hampshire - including Southern and Western states with significant minority populations - the pool of voters selecting the nominee will be far larger and more representative of the overall Democratic Party. As a result, candidates like Clark may be able to run more overtly national campaigns - and may have more options when it comes to assembling a winning coalition, rather than having to fight over the same set of voters.
"We are sliding toward a national primary, there's no question about it," says Emmett Buell, an expert on the primary system at Denison University. "In terms of what the process was two election cycles ago, Clark's strategy makes no sense at all. But if in fact what he's doing is gunning for the big event, a Titanic Tuesday, then there's a certain rationale to it."
In many ways, experts say, the importance of the roles played by Iowa and New Hampshire has increasingly diminished, as the primary calendar has grown more compressed and the process has gradually become more nationalized. Almost no candidates have managed to win both early contests in recent cycles - and in many cases, the eventual nominee has been able to come back from seemingly devastating losses in one state or the other. In the 2000 cycle, for example, George W. Bush lost New Hampshire to Sen. John McCain by 19 points, but was able to come back and beat him shortly after in South Carolina.
Indeed, "on the Republican side since 1980, the South Carolina primary has been a corrective for anomalous outcomes in New Hampshire," says Professor Buell.
Since Democrats will now compete in South Carolina just one week after New Hampshire, the state could take on a similar role for them. And while the Republican primary electorate in South Carolina is not necessarily all that different from the electorates in New Hampshire and Iowa, the Democratic pools are far more varied among those states - with South Carolina consisting of a substantial percentage of African-Americans. Likewise, some of the other states holding primaries alongside South Carolina - such as Arizona and New Mexico - have high numbers of Hispanic voters.
Of course, the momentum generated from a surprising performance in Iowa or New Hampshire may still hold significance - and no candidate is writing off both states. While Clark and Mr. Lieberman may be skipping Iowa, both are redirecting resources into New Hampshire. "New Hampshire is still a fairly good test of what's going to work elsewhere," says Sam Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. "Money pays more attention to New Hampshire and media pay more attention to New Hampshire."
But even in those states, the electorate may wind up more diversified than in years past, as campaigns are finding new ways to target potential voters and broaden the electorate. Dean in particular is "hoping to mobilize college students and others" who have not necessarily participated in the past, notes University of Iowa political scientist Peverill Squire. While these supporters may be less reliable than some of the longtime Democratic activists, such as union members, "there's reason to think he can probably [bring new people in] successfully," says Professor Squire.
Yet some experts note that while the Democratic primary electorate may be expanding, it may simultaneously wind up more fragmented, as candidates in a crowded field target niches rather than try to build broad coalitions. This effect may be exacerbated by the use of the Internet to reach voters. "You can target on a new dimension through the Internet," says Michael Cornfield, a political expert at George Washington University.
Given the competitiveness of the field, candidates may be able to win states with far smaller coalitions, which could come back to haunt the nominee in the general election. "What these candidates are doing is peeling off particular parts of the Democratic constituency," Buell says. "They're going for factions; they're not trying to build a coalition that will win the presidency, they're trying to recruit enough factions to prevail in these local contests."