The Mesmerizing Dance of “Mr. Mo Mentum”


With John Kerry’s big victories tonight in five of the seven states on Groundhog Tuesday (name courtesy of The Hotline), we are struck again by the amazing power of winning to beget more winning. A few weeks ago, Kerry had only shadow organizations in most of these states and was barely registering in their public opinion polls. Then came Kerry’s big victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. Suddenly, the blessing of Mr. Mo Mentum – an endorsement far more powerful than Al Gore or Bill Bradley – added one or two or three dozen percentage points almost everywhere, as tens of thousands of people began to see virtues in John Kerry they had never noticed before.

Kerry’s friend ‘Mo’ gives us insight into three facets of our politics:

One of the great social myths of American life is that Americans root for the underdog. Balderdash! AMERICANS LOVE WINNERS, and the 2004 Democratic primaries prove it so far. The big lie of the underdog is dead; long live the winners.

Speaking of six-feet-under, John Kerry was as dead as the proverbial doornail in 2003 after he lost his frontrunner status, faded even in his own backyard, and fired his campaign manager. Yet John F. Kerry has become John L. Kerry, with the “L” standing for Lazarus. Short of a religious miracle, how did he do it? Another L word: LUCK. Yes, he’s experienced, understands the nuances of politics, has a great life story, and all the rest. So do other candidates. But Kerry’s timing was impeccable. He rose as Dean fell, just as Democrats were looking for a substitute for their near-nominee, just as a Vietnam veteran – honest, unprompted, and unscripted – emerged into the klieg lights to tell spellbound Iowans how a young John Kerry heroically risked his own life to save his fellow soldier’s in the nightmare that was ‘Nam. EVERY CANDIDATE ELECTED PRESIDENT IS UNACCOUNTABLY LUCKY; HOW ELSE COULD HE BE PLUCKED OUT OF 281 MILLION PEOPLE TO WIN THE WHITE HOUSE LOTTERY?

The early polls already matching John Kerry against George Bush in November show Kerry winning, and the Crystal Ball guesses that the Democrat’s margin will grow in the coming weeks. Almost everything is going right for Kerry. Almost everything is going wrong for Bush. Surely the thought has occurred to Bush late at night in the unnatural quiet of the White House: Will I have an annus horribilis just like Dad did in 1992? And it is surely possible if American jobs keep disappearing, if Iraq keeps looking like Vietnam without the jungle, and if the deficit keeps growing. And yet… early polls are worth very little. Michael Dukakis led George Bush Sr. by 17 percentage points as late as August 1988, yet Bush el pere scored a near landslide 54 percent to 46 percent win against a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts. THE ENTIRE 2004 ELECTION MAY BOIL DOWN TO ONE SIMPLE QUESTION: WILL THIS YEAR BE A REPRISE OF 1988 OR 1992? Nine months away, polls are useless, and it could go either way. The Crystal Ball will bet that one of those years – both with decisive conclusions in November – will be more predictive of 2004 than the cliffhanger year of 2000.

And now, the candidate by candidate analysis:

JOHN KERRY: Incredibly, the Crystal Ball heard electronic media reporting on election night that “Kerry has been disappointed in his bid to wrap up the Democratic nomination…” Huh? Almost no one expected Kerry to run the tables with seven contests on the bill. Kerry won the two big states (Missouri and Arizona) handily, and he captured New Mexico, Delaware, and North Dakota, too –quite a diverse lot, especially when added to Iowa and New Hampshire from January. KERRY IS THE UNDISPUTED BIG WINNER. What’s at work here? The press and the pundits just don’t want to see the fun end so quickly, especially after a three-year build-up. And maybe, just maybe, the voters want to string out the contest a bit – or at least that may have been one of the motives behind the decisions rendered by the people of South Carolina and Oklahoma. Your Crystal Ball is game for it. For now, we’ll say that Kerry is the substantial frontrunner (and very likely nominee, barring massive gaffes or scandals), but that there is now a clear runner-up to match the front-runner, and his name is…

JOHN EDWARDS: Winning against the grain is always tough, and Edwards deserves great credit not just for capturing South Carolina but for securing a landslide margin against the frontrunner. Edwards’ near-tie in Oklahoma, achieved with far less effort than Wesley Clark’s tiny victory, was super-sweet mocha fudge whipped cream frosting on a delectable homemade Palmetto pecan pie. Edwards deserves his runner-up status and his ticket to Virginia and Tennessee on Feb. 10. Having said this, the Crystal Ball must be honest with its loyal gazers. Edwards has no better than a 20 percent to 25 percent shot at the presidential nomination. (Kerry is a 65 percent to 70 percent favorite, and the rest of the field is in single digits.) Edwards has demonstrated no more than a regional Southern/Border state appeal. He is playing in a limited number of primaries, and thus he must 1) win all or nearly all of his targeted states; 2) broaden his appeal so that he can win primaries and caucuses in other regions, and do so quickly; and 3) clear the field and get a one-on-one face-off: John “The Outsider” Edwards versus John “Mr. Beltway” Kerry (as the Edwards’ team likes to say). Good luck! It’s possible but improbable, especially if Wesley Clark stays in the race. Edwards wants to get this down to a two-man contest right away. In Virginia and Tennessee, for example, Clark is disproportionately drawing votes from Edwards, making it much more difficult for Edwards to defeat Kerry in either state. Edwards MUST win either Virginia or Tennessee (or BOTH) on Feb. 10, since they are neighboring states of his own NC. Thus, Kerry has an interest in seeing Clark stay in the nomination battle, just as Edwards needs urgently for Clark to leave. If Edwards loses Virginia and Tennessee, he will probably have to leave the contest; and Clark’s losses in these two Southern states would rationally require him to get out as well. If somehow Edwards can win VA and TN, or at least claim one of these states with a South Carolina-sized margin, then he can perhaps move on to Wisconsin on Feb. 17, and try to win his first non-South state.

WESLEY CLARK: His squeaker win in heavily Republican Oklahoma (1,275 votes over John Edwards out of 302,128 cast, or just 30 percent of the total overall) has energized a failing campaign. Yet overall, Clark did poorly on Feb. 3. Once in contention for outright victory in South Carolina, Arizona, New Mexico, and North Dakota (and New Hampshire as well a week earlier), Clark lost them all by significant margins. Incredibly, in South Carolina, Clark finished in SINGLE DIGITS (7 percent), behind even Al Sharpton! The rationale for Clark evaporated once Howard Dean ceased to be the frontrunner AND two other attractive, experienced candidates with long Democratic pedigrees emerged in Iowa (Kerry and Edwards). How long it takes for Clark to realize the obvious is very important in this nomination showdown. As noted above, if Clark stays in through Virginia and Tennessee, Kerry is aided and Edwards is hurt. The Crystal Ball’s bet is that he won’t get it, or care much if he does. Clark has a shot in Tennessee, much less so in Virginia, on Feb. 3. In sum, though, Clark’s once perceptible chances of being the Democratic nominee are now quite small.

HOWARD DEAN: The Green Mountain State’s politician-doctor took an unusual enforced vacation on Feb. 3. He had no real choice, facing a near-wipeout in most of the states. Dean’s only respectable – though losing – showing came in New Mexico, where he received 17 percent. Dean is aiming for victories in Washington State and Michigan on Saturday (and maybe Maine on Sunday), and he’d better get one (possible) or two (very doubtful) to stay alive. However, Kerry is well prepared for Dean in all three weekend states. Moreover, Dean isn’t going to do much of anything in Tennessee or Virginia on Feb. 10. Somehow, someway, Dean is praying to make it to Wisconsin on Feb. 17, thinking that the Badger State will give him a bounce. Like Clark, Dean appears determined to hold on until the money runs out, which is his privilege. But if there’s a credible winning strategy in the Dean campaign bible – yes, it’s a New Testament chapter – the Crystal Ball can’t figure it out. Too many “ifs,” too little reality. Ho-Ho, we hardly knew ye.

AL SHARPTON: Al, by contrast, we knew ye all too well. The New York activist’s best chance for an impact in this year’s nomination battle rested in good part on a sizeable showing in South Carolina. Amazingly, as we look back, there were even people who once believed that Sharpton could win South Carolina because of the massive African-American vote in the state’s Democratic primary. The returns are in, and Sharpton barely broke into double digits (10 percent). Forget about that prime-time TV appearance in Boston come July, Al!

DENNIS KUCINICH: The Crystal Ball’s faith in humanity is on its way to partial restoration, because Kucinich’s votes on Feb. 3 were more rare than the meat served at a cannibal convention. Dennis, thank goodness we never got to know ye as thoroughly as you desired.

JOE LIEBERMAN: It is fitting to conclude with a salute to the presidential candidate who left us, with grace and dignity, on the evening of Feb. 3. Lieberman had the good sense to read the returns correctly and to act decisively. Like his fellow ex-candidate Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman has given his nation much over many years. The Crystal Ball looks forward to hearing the Connecticut senator’s wit and wisdom for a long time to come.