They're important because they say so
Why you should care: Well, how else do you propose that we allow a few hundred thousand people you've never met to decide the presidential nominees for a nation of more than 300 million?
Who's still in it for the Democrats: Polls? What polls? When the campaign cranked up, Hillary Clinton was inevitable. When he cruised to a sizable victory in the Iowa caucus, Barack Obama was inevitable. Now, with Clinton rebounding from a third-place finish in Iowa to grab a solid win in New Hampshire, it's time to settle in for a high-dollar, back-and-forth battle for the Democratic nomination that might extend even beyond Super Duper Tuesday.
Commentators have floated plenty of hypotheses to explain Obama's win in Iowa and Clinton's comeback in New Hampshire -- the power of the independents, the ascension of the youth vote, the competing desires for change and experience -- but I've heard little about a powerful factor: regionalism. Obama is from Iowa's next-door neighbor Illinois, while Clinton lives in New York, right down the road from New Hampshire. Geography matters, and it's tough to read too much into each candidate winning a home game.
Who's still in it for the Republicans: Remember 2000? It's back again. John McCain has rolled to an easy victory in New Hampshire, baffling no less a political expert than Boston Legal's Denny Crane, who declared last year that McCain couldn't win because "he speaks Bush now." The Arizona senator joins Iowa winner Mike Huckabee at the top of the Republican pack, which still just barely has enough room for Mitt Romney, who stayed viable with a win last week in Wyoming, a sparsely populated, overwhelmingly white state that, unlike its hawkeye and granite brethren, apparently doesn't merit breathless media coverage.
The GOP race appears to be down to Huckabee, the choice of the religious right and social conservatives, and a non-Huckabee alternative on which the party's fiscal conservative and neocon wings have yet to settle. McCain looks like the most probable contender to fill that slot, especially given the national polls that have indicated he's the most electable option the Republicans have. But many in the GOP base see him as a RINO who's soft on immigration and too willing to compromise with Democrats, which leaves the door open for the cash-flush Romney if he starts to pull down a few of those gold medals he keeps touting. The question is whether Huckabee's opponents manage to consolidate behind a single candidate before Huckabee becomes unstoppable. I suspect they will, but not before a brutal intra-party fight.
Who's out for the Democrats: John Edwards polls very well in hypothetical general-election matchups, but he needed a win in Iowa or New Hampshire to get the dollars flowing. That didn't happen, so even if Edwards rebounds with a strong showing in South Carolina, he almost surely won't get the party's nod. Meanwhile, Bill Richardson would do well to reset his sights on a vice presidential bid. Despite his broad experience as a governor, congressman, and diplomat, he never got off the ground.
Who's out for the Republicans: Rudy Giuliani's campaign, hemorrhaging poll support amid multiple scandals, effectively has abandoned every race before the Florida primaries in late January. By then, it'll probably be too late to get any traction. Fred Thompson, as I've noted before, is the Wes Clark of the 2008 Republican primaries. Ron Paul has probably the most passionate supporters of anyone, but their numbers are too small to propel an anti-Iraq war candidate to a win in the GOP race.
Watch out for the wildcards: It won't happen any time soon, but Edwards could hand the Democratic nomination to Obama today if he dropped out of the race, because the candidates are drawing largely from the same pool of young and independent voters. Edwards' continued presence keeps Clinton's hopes alive and also pushes the race in a more populist direction than it otherwise would take. On the GOP side, Paul is getting the cash to stay in the mix for the duration and garner 8 percent to 10 percent of the primary vote, meaning he should have enough delegates to make things very lively indeed at the Republican convention. And don't discount the possibility that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg could stir the pot by dropping a billion dollars or so of his own money on an independent campaign.
Not a promising campaign development: The good news for former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel, D-Alaska, is that he didn't finish last in the New Hampshire primary. The bad news for him is that he is about 200 votes behind U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., who dropped out of the race last week.
Behind the numbers: Beneath all the endless dissections of the horse race and exit polling, one mathematical fact stands out: The Democratic vote totals in Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which historically are swing states, easily have surpassed the Republican turnout. Make of that what you will.