First came the fresh winds across the prairie, Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama rising fast and blowing away row upon row of tidy assumptions and dead certainties. As that front moved east, the weather changed; spring, the season of rebirth, came to New Hampshire. Snowbanks softened, toppling the yard signs; the Ice Queen melted. By nightfall, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, two veterans once left for dead, had sprung back to life.
In a race that turns out to be all about climate change, just about every forecaster was wrong which in a way was the best part. People made their own weather, refusing to stay inside, ignoring the old rules, the hot air, the floods of cash. Voters in both contests turned out in record numbers to throw off the polling models, and the fact that no one knows what happens now is itself a cause to celebrate. Maybe the other 99% of citizens will get a chance to play their part too in the already merrily historic campaign of 2008. Political professionals, consultants, lobbyists, reporters and pundits leafed madly through the unread pages of this election saga, but the voters took the book away and closed it. No jumping ahead. The story won't be foretold. It will unfold.
I. The Democrats
On Tuesday night, as the results started tight and stayed that way, Obama ate dinner at his Nashua hotel with his wife Michelle and his Kenyan sister Auma no kids, no aides. As the night got longer, his would-be victory rally was tomblike. You could hear change drop. Nothing that had happened in the previous 96 hours had prepared either side for what had taken place across New Hampshire since the polls opened at dawn.
Just as the voters of Iowa hadn't wanted to be told that Clinton was the inevitable nominee, Democrats in New Hampshire weren't much in the mood to be told that her candidacy was toast, that their votes were futile. In the final hours, the undecideds, who often end up too torn among candidates or too busy to bother voting, made their way to the polls and carried Clinton to victory. Obama got 37%, just as the polls projected. But the mantra of change that had turned seasoned journalists into giddy ballerinas in the days after Iowa did not win over the supporters of recently departed candidates Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, most of whom cast their ballots for Clinton. She got 40% instead of 30%, and Obama's lead disappeared, her fortunes revived, and both sides now have to plan for a campaign whose only certainty is uncertainty.
People close to Clinton, including one who spent the day in her hotel suite as she and her team worked on her speech, didn't think she saw it coming. But Clinton says otherwise. She went out early that morning to polling places. "I looked at voters, and they looked at me," she said. "I shook their hands, and we saw people just randomly. I stopped at a Dunkin' Donuts and just began to ask people to go out and vote. I began to sense that we were going to do well." She didn't say anything when she got back to the hotel; the first exit polls still had her about 9 points down. "I thought, You know, either I have totally lost my touch for figuring out what voters are thinking and doing, or this is going to be a lot better than anybody thinks."
The projected Obama blowout had the commentariat writing Clinton political obits and big donors so depressed, they were lined up to jump off that bridge to the 21st century. Her events felt flat and forced; the sound system wouldn't work well; the mike screeched back at her. Clinton's crowds each day, impressive by normal standards, could not rival Obama's immense events, so staffers were reduced to moving risers and limiting entry to create the appearance of overflow. Conservative fund raisers, meanwhile, were pondering in emails to one another whether to cut Clinton's name from their direct-mail appeals and paste in Obama's. A G.O.P. operative, after watching both party debates on Saturday night, declared, "Well, it's over now. She doesn't have a chance, and neither do we."
But that was just one more example of people who knew too much not seeing what was right in front of them: that voters might actually want to have a say in a primary system that has been engineered and re-engineered entirely around the interests of special interests. It was far too early for the whole process to be over, not with so many questions still to answer.