The Ebb and Flow of the Road to the Nomination

In both the Democratic and GOP races, no one can predict the twists and turns.

February 8, 2016, 11:28 AM

— -- The brilliant author Joseph Campbell once said, "You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you. If the path before you is clear, you're probably on someone else's." This is as true in our politics as it is in our personal lives.

As we approach the vote in the New Hampshire presidential primary tomorrow, we can understand what Campbell is revealing before us in this campaign. We can also see some myths that again have taken hold in the nomination race.

Donald Trump did not plan on losing the Iowa caucuses. His plan was to win Iowa, then New Hampshire, and begin running the table toward the GOP nomination. That was clear to him, but it didn't turn out that way. In the aftermath of this unexpected loss, he had to go through a bit of soul searching and retool his tone and messaging. He emerged a bit of a different leader. And now it seems what is waiting for him is a win in the New Hampshire primary.

Marco Rubio, with a surprising strong third-place finish in Iowa, immediately became the darling of the media, and his plans are now to finish in second place in New Hampshire. What was not clear was how badly he would perform in the last debate before the primary, possibly disrupting his plan. The seasoned pros around him understand that when you live by the media wave, you also must expect to crash on the beach from the wave. Rubio must now rediscover what is his path ahead and how he must step forward differently.

Ted Cruz had planned for a win in evangelically-dominated Iowa that would clearly propel him forward into a strong showing in NH. He and his team did not plan on getting zero momentum from an Iowa caucus win. They also thought it was clear that a wounded Trump would fall off from a loss and not be able to recover. Ahead for them now is an unclear path ahead without a definitive state to win in the coming days.

Many of the media have had to recalibrate numerous times in this race what they thought would likely happen. Most thought Trump would not survive the summer, then as the Iowa caucuses loomed, they planned for his victory there. As they analyzed Trump's loss in Iowa, they speculated that once Trump lost then he would never be able to recover. Now facing a very probable big Trump victory in NH, they again are going to have to peel away more diligently where the story of this election is headed.

One way the media and many campaign operatives have not served the public is repeating an embedded myth that the results in Iowa always change the results of the New Hampshire primary. The media constantly talks about the volatility of the electorate, and the voters don't always respond according to this media plan.

I looked at polling over the last 30 years or so, and the best way to determine who is likely to win the New Hampshire primary is to look at who was winning NH prior to the Iowa caucuses. In 1980, before he lost Iowa, Ronald Reagan was beating George H.W. Bush by double digits in NH. After Bush won Iowa, the race initially closed, but on Election Day, Reagan won NH by double digits. In 2000, prior to his Iowa caucus victory, George W. Bush was losing to John McCain in NH by a large margin. Bush won Iowa, and again the race closed initially, but by Election Day McCain swamped Bush.

And more recently, McCain had a solid lead over Romney prior to the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and in New Hampshire he soundly beat Romney days later. On the Democratic primary side in 2008, Hillary Clinton held a small lead over Barack Obama in NH in nearly every public poll prior to her surprising loss in Iowa. Obama then got a big bump from Iowa and took a lead in NH. In the end, NH trended back to where it had been before Iowa, and Hillary again regained top position. This exact same pattern unfolded in 2012 for Romney. He led in NH prior to the Rick Santorum Iowa surprise, then won in NH by nearly the exact amount he polled at earlier.

The bottom line for tomorrow is that if this pattern holds, Trump and Bernie Sanders should both win New Hampshire solidly. For the GOP, what is unclear today is who finishes second or third, and unlike in years past, that could have a dramatic effect on the road ahead in this race.

In both the Democratic and GOP races, no one can predict the twists and turns that will emerge. Will a victory for Trump propel him forward with dominance? Will a Sanders victory reset the national race and give him a legitimate shot at winning states many say he can't conquer? Will a new runner-up on the GOP side emerge and how will this change the dynamic? Who will stumble next?

Like life, none of us truly know the answers to those and other questions. In my own life, it was the stumbles, the mistakes and the losses that opened up for me the life that was meant for me, not the one I had planned. Campaigns and the media love to make concrete plans about what is ahead, but maybe we should listen to Campbell and give up on the life (or campaign) we planned and be prepared to accept the life (or campaign) that is waiting for us.

There you have it.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.

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