Encouraging news: more than four million people watched the most recent Democratic presidential debate on CNN. Sobering news: that was only good enough for 14th place in the week's cable TV ratings. Ten of the Top 15 shows were episodes of "SpongeBob SquarePants" on Nickelodeon. Two others were WWE Raw wrestling shows. It's no surprise that more Americans would rather watch people in masks wrestle than see politicians wrestle with the truth. And having met Tom Kenny, the extremely funny guy who's the voice of SpongeBob, I have to admit he's far more entertaining than Dennis Kucinich. I'll take a SquarePants over a SmartyPants anyday.
Despite a whopping case of Debate Overload ("tonight, live from East Muscatine, Iowa, it's the Organic Bean Farmers Association's Vegan Voters Forum"), more and more people really are starting to tune in to this election, with only a month to go before primary and caucusgoers start casting ballots. And many of them are actually thinking for themselves, essentially ignoring the punditocracy. Most of America counts on Iowans and New Hampshire-ites (New Hampshireans?) to sort through the field and separate the wheat from the chaff, which is something farmers do better than the rest of us anyway. Have you ever actually seen chaff? I have a sneaking feeling it looks a lot like Mike Gravel. Typically, most Americans vote for the person they've heard of the most and believe will win, sort of like buying lunch at McDonald's and coffee at Starbuck's because they're familiar and you know what you're getting, even though the mom-and-pop cafe next door may grill a mean burger and brew a better latte.
But people in Iowa and New Hampshire take this process very seriously. They don't tend to care what the polls say. I'm mildly proud of the fact that I met every president from Carter to Clinton (they won't let me get closer than 20 feet or so to the current President Bush). But just about everyone in Dubuque, Iowa and Dover, NH has not only met every president since, say, Lyndon Johnson - they've also shaken hands and had coffee and talked at length with everyone who's even considered running for president in the last 40 years. They know how to measure their candidates, and unlike many in the media, they make up their own minds. I am always astonished by analysts and columnists who simply assume that the fall frontrunner is a shoo-in for the nomination. These are the people who gave you President Gephardt in 1992 and President Dean last time around. Nominations aren't won in August, or even November. We have all been told for six months that it will be Hillary Clinton vs. Rudy Giuliani in 2008. It may well be, but I don't believe it for a second. I've written here before about why I don't think Rudy can win the nomination, let alone the election. Hillary remains a formidable frontrunner, but don't dismiss Barack Obama or John Edwards just yet. And look what's happening in Iowa: someone forgot to tell the Hawkeye Cauci voters that they're expected to bring their "INEVITABLE" stamps with them on Caucus Night so they can ratify Rudy and Hill.
Now, given the sterling performances of our recent presidents, maybe it's a mistake to let Iowa and New Hampshire do the sorting for us. Iowa Democrats tend to be more liberal than the norm, and Iowa Republicans are more conservative, heavily influenced by the Christian right. That can give early momentum to candidates who may not be the best choice for the national party, in either case. The Democrats, in particular, might do better in November if a state like Michigan or Ohio wielded more early clout. But this year, it could mean a real shakeup for the conventional wisdom. Rudy Giuliani simply doesn't play well among Iowa Republicans, which is why he's invested less in the state, and has a truly national strategy that pins more hope on the February 5th super primary, than on the early, more conservative states. Rudy doesn't need to win Iowa or New Hampshire to remain viable, while all of his competitors, except maybe the deep-pocketed Mitt Romney, do. So it's likely that either Romney or surging Mike Huckabee will win in Iowa, which will vault one of them to the top of the field, and maybe, finally, rattle all those pundits who keep insisting Giuliani will be the nominee. Again, Rudy can survive two early losses, but if Huckabee, for example, suddenly starts raking in money, volunteers, free media coverage and some national buzz after some early upsets, he could take away an awful lot of February 5 delegates that Rudy's camp has already been counting in his column.
Meanwhile, Democrats in Iowa are warming to Obama, find him more likable and genuine than Hillary, and could knock her Inevitability Train right off the track. A recent AP-Yahoo survey found voters far more willing this year to vote for the candidate that impresses them the most, instead of the one they think will win, which bodes well for the underdogs and not so well for the frontrunners. They're not even basing their decision on the perennial "who would I rather have a beer with?" test - because last time, the answer to that question was George W. Bush, and we all know how that's worked out.
It's good to see voters resist the pack mentality. Fifty percent of those supporting Obama say they think Hillary will beat him - but they don't care. About a third of Edwards voters feel the same way. The only way America will elect more effective presidents is if we think for ourselves, and don't choose the leaders that we're force-fed. We can have cartoon heroes with spongy minds, but let's open our own, with critical thinking and tough questions, as we make these critical choices over the next two months.