“Thinking is the great enemy of perfection.”
—Joseph Conrad, Victory
Only one person has ever been elected president of the United States after losing the New Hampshire primary. This is a statistic of no predictive value, but it does qualify a little the perception that American presidential campaigns get started with a couple of random bounces out of states too small and demographically eccentric for their preferences to be meaningful, Iowa and New Hampshire, before settling down to a series of contests in places genuinely representative of the national electorate.
This year the first of these putatively meaningful contests is the Republican primary, on February 19, in South Carolina—a state where a Confederate flag flies over the capitol and where the Republican Party keeps polling places in predominately black precincts closed during presidential primaries. Governor George W. Bush chose to begin his campaign there, after his loss to Senator John McCain in New Hampshire, with a speech at Bob Jones University, a school that had its tax-exempt status revoked because of its policy of prohibiting interracial dating. Yet a consensus seems to exist that if Bush defeats McCain in South Carolina, the New Hampshire result can be written off as just one of those crazy Granite State bounces, and Bush’s aura of electability will be restored.
This consensus reflects a prejudice, current since Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968, that no one can win the presidency who has not first demonstrated an ability to win in the South—so that, as a measure of electability, a primary victory in any Southern state must count for more than a primary victory in a state like New Hampshire. Historically, it’s true, New Hampshire has rewarded doomed anti- establishmentarians in one of its party primaries—Pat Buchanan, Paul Tsongas, Gary Hart—almost as often as it has picked future presidents in the other. The question this year is whether the man who emerged as the big winner of the New Hampshire primary is one of the doomed or one of the presidents.
That person, of course, is McCain. Within twenty-four hours of his nineteen-point victory over Bush he had raised almost a million dollars in contributions on his website; within forty-eight hours he had gone from as much as twenty points down in the South Carolina polls to two points ahead. By the end of week the New York Republican Party, after months of resistance, had agreed to allow his name to appear on the ballot throughout the state. McCain had jump-started a real race.
In fact, Vice President Al Gore’s victory in the Democratic primary was at least as significant as McCain’s was in the Republican. New Hampshire was a state it was widely thought Bill Bradley had to win; for several months, he had had a small but apparently secure lead in the polls. It is a measure of the press’s distaste for Gore that his win on February 1 was interpreted as a “close …