If there's a rule book for political prognosticators the very first rule ought to be this: Don't assume anything until people actually start casting votes.
Remember Howard Dean, the former Democratic governor of Vermont who wowed the pundits with his Internet fundraising ability and his fiery anti-war rhetoric in 2004? He was the hands-on, early front-runner who received the endorsement of former Vice President Al Gore, the previous Democratic nominee before the Iowa caucuses. Many media experts thought the nomination that year was his for the taking.
The 2004 political picture changed rapidly however once people started casting actual votes. When Iowa Democrats went to their caucuses Dean finished third with 18 percent of the vote and his campaign was soon over.
Busting up the assumptions of experts is a favorite pastime of voters and last week the Iowa voters who propelled Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to first-place finishes in their respective caucuses did nice job of rebuffing what had been considered the conventional wisdom a few months ago.
Leading up to the Iowa vote the experts had opined that Sen. Hillary Clinton's nomination by Democrats was inevitable. The Clinton machine, fueled by lots of cash and persuasive endorsements would soon brush aside any opponents. When Iowa Democrats finished voting on Thursday Clinton finished third.
Similarly, when Huckabee entered the presidential race about a year ago, the news was greeted by most experts with a long and sustained yawn. They made fun of his name and portrayed him as a quirky evangelical whose previous claim to fame was shedding more than 100 pounds. Until recent polls showed Huckabee's surge the lion's share of media attention went to the well funded former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (second place in Iowa), former Sen. Fred Thompson (tied for third) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (sixth place).
Obama and Huckabee have a long way to go before they're guaranteed their respective nominations and winning in Iowa is no predictor of success. The only candidates to win the Iowa caucuses and eventually get to the White House were Jimmy Carter in 1976 and George W. Bush in 2000.
Voters have a way of surprising the political experts and no doubt there will be a few more surprises before this long election year is over.
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