Learning Little From Iowa and New Hampshire

This just in. Hillary is up 7 in New Hampshire. Or maybe she’s down 3. Two polls, same day.

In Iowa, Hillary might be up by 3. Then again, Barack might be up by 8. Who’s right? The answer is there is no answer.

My old pollster used to tell me to always believe his polls, especially when they were bad. In other words, always assume the worst.

But the truth, as they say in Hollywood, is that no one knows anything.

Iowa is notoriously hard to poll, precisely because it’s a caucus state. Call someone on the phone and even if they tell you they’re a registered voter over 18, there’s no way to know whether in fact they’re interested enough, or will be, to brave whatever the weather will be on January 3 and spend their evening listening to speeches and going to different corners of the room.

General elections tend to be easier to poll than primaries, and primaries are easier to poll than caucuses, because of the problems of fashioning the right “screen” -- the questions that separate people who like to talk on the phone from those who actually plan to, and will, vote.

You can make calls based on who voted in the past, or caucused, but then you leave out all the new people -- new because they didn’t vote four years ago, or weren’t old enough, or lived somewhere else, or saw no reason to pick last time around.

So what we really know about the Democratic race are only two things: first, that both Iowa and New Hampshire are too close to call; and second, that the nomination won’t be decided by either of them.

A few months ago, a lot of people who won’t admit it now thought Hillary would win both states in a breeze, and that would be that. Nice try, Barack. If that’s what people still expected to have happen, and it didn’t, it might be a crushing blow for Hillary.

But no one expects that anymore. This is a game about expectations, and the expectations on the Democratic side are that the race has tightened up, and that either state could go either way. So if that's what happens, nothing’s happened, except everyone’s left trying to figure out what comes next.

As long as it’s close, which is what people expect now, neither Hillary nor Barack will accept the results as decisive. And why should they?

My brother, who knows a thing or two about dogs and ponies, once told me that in wet weather, you should always bet on the fat dog. He’s the one least likely to slip. The political corollary is that in tough nomination fights, always bet on the frontrunner, because he’s the one who can get up even if he falters in the early rounds.

On that theory, Iowa and New Hampshire are less about picking winners than eliminating losers, or as my old friend, longtime Iowa Democratic hand Bonnie Campbell, used to say, “winnowing.” Say what, Senator Edwards, not to mention Biden and Dodd.

The best news for Democrats is not just that we have two strong candidates, but that the Republicans are in so much worse shape. Their frontrunner is unlikely to finish in the money in either Iowa or New Hampshire, and this just isn’t a year that seems to cry out for a Huckabee.

Two former governors, one who doesn’t have anything nice to say about Mormons and the other who is one, neither of whom has any credentials on foreign policy or national security, are not just what the doctor ordered. There are dozens of reasons why neither Gov. Huckabee nor Gov. Romney makes sense as the Republican nominee, starting with the fact that either of the leading Democrats could beat either of them, but another rule I learned in my family is the one my father taught me: you can’t beat a horse with no horse.

And right now, at least in Iowa and New Hampshire, Rudy is no horse. All of which is to say that we’re all going to spend a lot of time in the next few weeks following every in and out of the races in two states that, when we look back, may end up having less to do with picking winners this year than all the attention we give them would ever suggest.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.