Thursday, January 31, 2008

Phase Change

One of the most fascinating phenomena in physical chemistry is the phase change. Did you know that the temperature of a melting ice cube does not change? As you add heat to an ice cube at melting point, the heat does not go towards raising the ice's temperature, but to changing the phase of the water from solid to liquid. And did you know that the temperature of a pot of boiling water also does not change, for the same reason? The additional heat goes towards changing the phase from liquid to gas, not towards raising the temperature.

There are other phenomena I find interesting, that are kind of similar. For example, you can take a very hot pot of water, and dissolve a bunch of sugar. Then, if you're careful, and cool the solution very slowly, all of the sugar will stay dissolved. This is what you call a super-saturated solution -- it has way, way more sugar dissolved in it than it ought to at that temperature. But the solution is very unstable. The extra sugar wants to come out of solution, badly. Drop one crystal in, and foom! Instantly, the water clouds up as sugar crystals precipitate out of the saturated solution.

I feel a little as if I were watching something like that happen.

Last time, I was writing about a complex race for the Republican nomination for President, and a three-way scrum for the Democratic nomination. All of a sudden, the picture has become much more plain.

Well, I knew that Giuliani had to pull big numbers in Florida if he wanted to stay competitive. He didn't, and was set to crash and burn in short order. What I didn't expect was that he'd be so ruthless about cutting his losses and pulling the plug once it became clear that his gamble didn't pay off. What I really didn't expect, and what caught me completely gobsmacked, was seeing John Edwards bail out, too.

Some observations follow:

First, the early primaries have worked more or less as intended. They've shaken the tree and flushed out the flakes and lightweights. Those still clinging on have either lots of support, or rather more than the normal ration of stubborn tenacity. Leaving aside the stubborn cranks -- that means you, Dr. Paul and Sen. Gravel -- the remaining candidates represent substantial constituencies within their respective parties. Now, the state parties get to sort out who represents them come November.

Second, Super Tuesday is liable to set up the political equivalent of a Breakout and Pursuit situation, possibly in both parties. At this point, I really think the Republican nomination is John McCain's to lose. He won big in Florida, and picked up some key endorsements not only from Giuliani, but from Governor Schwarzenegger of California. Given their respective popularity within New York and California, that probably safely delivers those states into the McCain camp. Big, big advantage there. McCain can probably still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but he'll have to put in a Herculean -- nay, a Clayton Williams-ian -- effort to do so.

(Ah, Clayton Williams ... Now there was a rare one. He had an easy run at the Republican nomination for Governor of Texas in 1990, plenty of money, a solid grass-roots organization, and he was facing a Democratic opponent weakened by a brutal, ugly primary campaign. But with unerring precision he swept all of these obstacles aside, and from tranquility wrought a smoking, chaotic ruin. Ann Richards stunned everyone with a come-from-behind win. We may never see his like again. But I digress...)

The picture on the Democratic side is muddier, but looking steadily less favorable for the Clinton camp. They took a stinging hit in South Carolina, and another body blow with the endorsements from the Kennedys (Ted and Caroline) for Barack Obama. And that was before the bombshell dropped that Edwards was quitting. It's far too early to say that the race is Obama's to lose, but I do think it's fair to say that Obama is inside Clinton's decision cycle. If that persists, then the junior Senator from Illinois will take it all the way home. Clinton simply has to do something to regain the initiative, she's sunk otherwise.

Third, I think that the Republican base is about to fracture. How the Republicans manage this will determine if their center can hold, and whether they can run a competitive campaign come November. As I see it, there are three basic constituencies within the Republican party: the National Security conservatives, the Fiscal conservatives, and the Social conservatives. Reagan somehow spot-welded these into a coalition that's lasted almost thirty years now. It's beginning to show cracks. Each of these constituencies has a candidate in the primary. John McCain is the natural choice for the voter who's interested in a strong military and a bullish foreign posture. Mitt Romney's business acumen and background is attractive to the fiscally-oriented voter. And Mike Huckabee is a natural fit for the social conservative. Only one can win, and I've already said that I think McCain is the man. Question is, do the other two factions line up and play ball, or do they sit it out? I think the fiscal conservatives will, but will the social conservatives? I think many of them did sit out 2006. Too early to tell, and this may not be the year it goes blooey, but the schism's coming.

Mind you, all of this may change at a moment's notice. That's what makes this season so interesting.

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