WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The day after the New Hampshire primary, Washington insiders and political junkies coast-to-coast thought they had experienced a seismic event.
Flushed with excitement, the wise guys convinced themselves that they had a Big Story. The plot line went like this: By finishing second in New Hampshire to Patrick J. Buchanan, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole has been dealt a mortal blow, not only to his front-runner status, but to his very chances at winning the presidency.
Bob Beckel, who co-managed Walter F. Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign, spoke on network television about a brokered Republican convention in San Diego. Fred Barnes, a respected conservative journalist, added that if Mr. Buchanan were denied the nomination it would somehow be done nefariously -- and suggested Mr. Buchanan might run as a third-party candidate under the banner of Ross Perot's party.
Technically, both of those things are still possible, but here is a far more likely scenario:
Bob Dole will keep winning primaries. He will select a running mate who bestirs the imaginations of the press, if not of the electorate. Mr. Dole will be nominated on the first ballot in San Diego. The convention floor will be a sea of hoopla, hype, and brass bands. Mr. Dole will run a competitive race against President Clinton that will be decided in October or November.
Whole forests will be cut down to provide the newsprint for insider articles on the candidates' advisers, ads, speeches, missteps, war records, wives and private lives. But the outcome of the election is unlikely to hinge on those factors.
Instead, it will be decided on issues of a sweeping scope: namely the state of the economy, whether the nation is at peace or at war -- and whether Americans feel secure about themselves and confident in the person they are about the choose to lead them.
How, you ask, can anyone predict the future with such certainty? The answer is, no one can. But there is a wonderful continuity to American politics, and the answers to the present are usually found in our recent past.
Strangely, the people who ought to know this lesson the most -- the political professionals and media who cover politics for a living -- are those who heed it the least. One reason is an over-reliance on public opinion polls at the expense of history -- or even common sense. Another is a desire to be at the center of something exciting, even if it has to be manufactured.
"People love drama, people love a horse race," says Lynn Cutler, a longtime Democratic Party official. "Remember, when Jesse Jackson won in Michigan in 1988. Oh, the panic! The frenzy!"
The voting public, by contrast, generally demonstrates a kind of institutional wisdom about the electoral process. It doesn't get too excited too early or too often, and generally votes for the candidate who has the best organization, the support of the party regulars, a sufficient war chest -- and who exhibits that elusive trait of being "presidential."
"Everybody likes surprises," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. "But usually, there aren't surprises. The steady horse wins."
Nevertheless, every four years, the press and the political community seem to make the same two mistakes. They become obsessed with polls, and they overreact to the early primaries. Those twin fixations result in the front-runner's being built up too high. And when he momentarily stumbles -- as they all do -- they are too quick to turn on him.
In 1980, a prominent network correspondent delivered Ronald Reagan's "political obituary" after Mr. Reagan lost the Iowa caucuses.
Four years later, the New York Times led its front page the day of the New Hampshire primary with an article that stated flatly that no challenger to Walter F. Mondale had even emerged. Mr. Mondale lost New Hampshire to Gary Hart that very day.
Then, the political establishment reversed field. Winning the nomination without New Hampshire was a Herculian feat, they said. Actually, four others had done it before. Mr. Mondale was on his way to being the fifth.
But Gary Hart didn't go quickly, and two political reporters for Knight-Ridder Newspapers confidently predicted a brokered convention that year. I remember this because I was one of them.
Eight years later, in 1992, dozens of well-paid pundits literally used the word "dead" to describe Mr. Clinton when he stumbled prior to New Hampshire.
As late as June of that year, officials with the Democratic National Committee were worrying aloud in on-the-record interviews that Bill Clinton would finish such a dismal third behind George Bush and Ross Perot that the Democratic Party would be de-certified by the Federal Election Commission -- and lose matching funds for the 1996 race.
This year, the pundit class dismissed Bob Dole as a has-been before a single vote had been cast. Mr. Dole's early heave-ho was based on his wooden delivery of a forgettable January speech in response to Mr. Clinton's 1996 State of the Union address. His loss in New Hampshire - no matter that it was narrow - and his nondescript performance on the campaign trail were said to have revealed him as the weakest front-runner in memory.
But memories aren't what they used to be. Just two weeks later, Mr. Dole won all eight primaries in a single day, by commanding margins, and without spending much on political advertisements. Two days after that, he won the New York primary by a huge margin. Three days from now, he is poised to win most of the 362 delegates up for grabs on "Super Tuesday."
"New Hampshire has proven it's not that important," says Ms. Lake. "And yet, every four years its significance is over-stated all over again."
One reason it's not a good predictor is that independents are allowed to vote there. Maverick Pat Buchanan was unable to replicate his victory over Mr. Dole in states that require only card-carrying Republicans. The same was true of Paul Tsongas, who defeated Mr. Clinton in New Hampshire but had difficulty pushing his eat-your-spinach message in primaries that only allowed Democrats.
Nevertheless, the fad last week was to talk knowingly of "exit polls" and "focus groups" showing that the reason Republicans voted for Mr. Dole was that they didn't see the others as viable options. In other words, the 72-year-old Kansan is still weak -- it's just that his opponents are even weaker.
This may be true, but recent history suggests that it misses the point. A stick-out candidate can emerge from a nondescript field and be elected president of the United States. It happened less than four years ago.
In 1992, as New Hampshire approached, Mr. Clinton was besieged by competing revelations about draft dodging, skirt-chasing, and not-inhaling. He finished second in New Hampshire, just as Mr. Dole did.
Yet both men seem to have prevailed for the most basic of reasons: As the process went on, most voters couldn't envision their challengers in the White House.
"The moral of the story is: You can't beat somethin' with nothin'," says James Lake, a longtime GOP insider and Reaganite.
To political pros such as Mr. Lake, it was self-evident in 1992 that Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas -- Mr. Clinton's principal challengers -- were not going to be elected president.
"Neither were Steve Forbes or Pat Buchanan," says William Lee Miller, a presidential scholar from the University of Virginia, who pointed out that Republicans don't tend to nominate men who've never held elective office unless they've been five-star generals. "There were two or three swings, first for Forbes, then for Buchanan, then for Forbes again," Mr. Miller said. "But those two are, if you pardon the phrase, just journalists."
Somehow, even a lesson this elementary has trouble catching on.
Four years ago, a fiery Republican insurgent challenged his party's anointed leader with a candidacy based on old-style isolationism, blue-collar resentments and opposition to abortion. He was a polarizing figure who captured the public's imagination early on, but could never quite break his ceiling at the polls, which seemed to be in the low-to-mid-30s. His name was Pat Buchanan.
In 1996, his counterpart -- one who caught the political class by surprise -- was well, Pat Buchanan.
Of course, there is a caveat to all this, a funny little paradox for those who use history as their guide. It is this: Change does come. Each election is much like the last, except that each year there are a few new wrinkles. The trick is figuring out which ones actually portend a new trend.
In 1992, a Texas billionaire tried to bypass the party system and win the nomination by spending his own money and sweet-talking Larry King. That was certainly a novel idea. Was it a passing fancy -- or an permanent change?
This time around, Steve Forbes, whose fortune is in the $400 million range, took Ross Perot's approach -- and applied it within a political party. Ross Perot, meanwhile, has formed a third party. The polls say there's a market for one. History says they only happen every hundred years or so.
Carl M. Cannon covers the White House for The Sun Carl M. Cannon
Pub Date: 3/10/96