The American election process begins today with the Iowa caucuses and it has been drowning in media attention. However, one key fact that defines why it is important is almost never mentioned: being the first to win has become the be all and end all partly because of the political media culture that above all celebrates success. Winning the first state in recent elections has caused instant growth in support even for transparently weak candidates such as John Kerry because the fact of success becomes the central theme of media coverage and the bandwagon effect thereby created becomes self-reinforcing.
I would prefer to see the contest this time last at least until February 5th (when there will be primaries or caucuses in 20 states) simply because that day there will be a large enough number of primaries in enough big states for the process to do a better job of finding the best candidate. It has a chance to do so on the Republican side but only because all the candidates are seen one way or another as being seriously flawed by some key Republican constituency. The Republican contest is less important to TC as in his view it is simply going to chose a loser. The incumbent party is responsible for a major war, which will be longer than Vietnam (as a major conflict if we date large scale U.S. involvement as being from early 1965 to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords) within three years. It is also a party likely to bear responsibility for an impending recession.
On the Democratic side I see John Edwards as the most realistic of the candidates in recognizing the need to deal with a highly class divided and unequal society, but it looks more and more to me like Barack Obama could sweep all before him. He has been rightly attacked by the likes of Paul Krugman for a campaign that leans too far to the right on crucial issues such as health care, although I think his early opposition to the war in Iraq is a key offset to that. But his real political cachet is an argument that he is the candidate of hope. There is no doubt that in the past political campaigns in the U.S. (Reagan 84) and in Canada (1993 Chrétien Liberal) that offered a persuasive optimistic message, no matter how loose or vague the actual commitments in the fine print, were enormously successful.
Obama appears to have the combination of qualities for that kind of political success. However, anti-black racism remains a fact of American life. While I don't think it sufficient to deny him victory in November, it is likely that his lead on election day in November will be smaller than the closing polls suggest because of this factor. However that won't matter today. His problem for Iowa is that it is a process dominated in the past by the highly active party regulars. Obama needs to transform his ability to appeal to the typically non-involved into votes at evening meetings. The premise of the Des Moines Register poll of a few days ago that gave him a significant lead was that he could do this.