Hello, New Hampshire. Are you glad it's over? Do you want your TV programs back? Are you tired of hearing about polls and momentum and image and "message" and the other fluff of electoral politics? Were you able to figure out if there's any real difference among the candidates on the issues that really matter? (Other than Lieberman on one end and Kucinich on the other, that is.)
Like everything else about modern U.S. politics, election results are all about perception. Well, I guess you can't say that about the actual final election itself (or can you, Florida 2000?), but it's certainly true of presidential primaries. A win can be a loss, and a loss can be a win.
It changes every week, though, especially during this early period of the campaign. It's tempting to say that in John Kerry's case, a win in New Hampshire is a win. He was way behind Howard Dean in the polls just a few weeks ago, and he won by a wide margin.
Not as wide a margin as some the late polling predicted, though. So is it a win or a loss? It's sort of like the Oscar race. The front-runner now might not even finish. At least with the Oscars, we only have to wait a month. This primary thing, unless somebody wins three or four weeks in a row (and right now Kerry is the only one with a shot), could drag on.
Kerry now has the advantage of being the front-runner and hearing his name first in newscasts and seeing his picture on magazine covers. Dean has a more subtle advantage of being the former front-runner who says he's still optimistic and he won't slow down or change his message or back off from telling the truth as he sees it. There's something commendable about that, too.
If the perception among Democratic voters is that Kerry can beat Bush, he'll probably keep the momentum he gained in Iowa and tonight. On the other hand, it's not easy being the front runner. Everybody wants a piece of you. Too many people want you to fail. The microscope is unforgiving, unless you're Bill Clinton. And there's no Clinton, Bill or otherwise, in this campaign.