It was going to be short and simple: Hillary Clinton vs. Rudy Giuliani.
Those were the long-ago and far-away days of initial preferences, when the two best-known candidates held commanding leads for their parties' presidential nominations. That it didn't end that way underscores an eternal truth of American politics: Campaigns matter. Now, with the primaries at last over, deciphering how they played out can provide invaluable intelligence on what comes next.
Exit poll results are clear: Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., lost the nomination because her party's voters wanted change. And former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, R-N.Y., lost it because his party didn't.
Beyond those realities lie a wealth of data that both rebut conventional wisdom and give the presumptive nominees, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, a blueprint of bridges to build, strengths to promote and shortcomings to address.
Obama cornered the market on change: Across all Democratic primaries, 50 percent of voters called it the single most important candidate attribute, more than twice as many as picked No. 2, experience. Change voters favored Obama by a vast margin, 68-29 percent.
Change, though, is a double-edged sword -- it can be good or bad. In national ABC/Post polling, while Democrats clearly prefer "new ideas and a new direction" over strength and experience, the public overall divides more evenly -- with a slight tilt toward the stability of experience rather than the chance of change.
Indeed on the Republican side it was experience that worked for McCain -- he won voters who cared most about it by a 61-27 percent margin, his best vote-winning attribute.
Yet McCain faces challenges in the core of his party. "Experience" wasn't the most attractive candidate quality to GOP voters; cited by 24 percent, it finished a distant second to shared values, cited by 44 percent. And among values voters McCain finished only third, behind former Govs. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., and Mitt Romney, R-Mass., alike. Similarly, McCain was weak among "very" conservative voters, evangelical Christians and opponents of legal abortion -- overlapping groups at the heart of the Republican constituency. While large numbers of them are unlikely to vote Democratic, McCain needs to motivate them to vote at all.
If appealing to conservatism is a task for McCain, it was an insurmountable one for Giuliani. In all 29 Republican primaries in which exit polls were conducted, a remarkable 65 percent of voters on average described themselves as conservatives, more than in exit polls since 1976. When it came time to vote, a pro-choice, pro-gun-control, sometime pro-gay-civil-unions Republican was not their cup of tea. Triangulated by McCain (more appealing to moderate and the few liberal Republicans), Romney (conservatives) and Huckabee (evangelicals), Giuliani was gone before January was out.
Having prevailed in his primaries -- not least because Huckabee and Romney continued to split their core constituencies -- McCain's task ahead involves some intricacies. He needs to reassure and energize the GOP base (which still broadly supports George W. Bush) without alienating the vital and somewhat grouchy center (which clearly does not). He needs to address concerns about his age. And he likely needs to enunciate a rationale for his candidacy beyond the "steady hand" that has so far served him well.