1. Performance doesn’t matter. Of all the candidates, Senator John Edwards delivered the best stump speech, in which he decried the existence of “two Americas,” one for the rich and one for the rest. It was the best formulation of the anti-special interests message adopted by each of the leading candidates, and he delivered it with the skill and grace of a trial attorney out of a Grisham novel. It did little for his campaign in New Hampshire. Former Governor Howard Dean bolstered his message, and in campaign appearances displayed a wealth of knowledge on assorted family matters. That did not help him narrow the gap between himself and Senator John Kerry (which end up at 13 points in New Hampshire). In fact, Kerry was the poorest campaigner of the three. At rallies, he was less inspiring than the competition. He did improve as Election Day neared. But the voters did not respond as reviewers.
2. Screaming is bad. What ifs don’t count in politics–or anywhere else. But it seems a reasonable assumption that Dean might have won New Hampshire or come in a much closer second had he not emitted a pirate yell during his Iowa concession speech. Desperate for good news, Dean aides on Election Night were noting that Dean’s 26 points in New Hampshire marked a 8 point rise from the low he had hit in the polls after Iowa. In other words, Dean had been moving in the right direction. Certainly, not far enough to write home about. But had he not become a household joke across the country, might he have gained more? Perhaps. But, then again, maybe he only returned to his natural limit. Which raises the question: if he cannot pull more than a quarter of Democratic voters in the state next to his own, how can he do better elsewhere?
3. Not hot enough is better than too hot. Here’s a simple summation of the contest: Dean connects too much; Kerry connects too little; and Edwards connects just the right amount–but he looks like he is sixteen-years-old. Intensity can be frightening, and Dean remains Mr. Intensity–or is it Dr. Intensity?–even after his post-Iowa calm-down. Voters seem more willing to overlook Kerry’s inability to inspire more than they are willing to put aside questions about Dean’s manner. As Iowa showed, only some voters want to be fired up. Many want to be reassured. Dean has been better at inspiring passion than confidence. In New Hampshire, he changed his tone and recrafted his message to address this concern, and he focused much more on his record as a governor who got things done (like health care). But the shriek may still be echoing.
4. Unions can help only so much. In New Hampshire, Dean had the Service Employees International Union, the largest union in the state, on his side, and it did not make a large difference. Andrew Stern, the union’s president, told me that the state chapter made sure that 90 percent of its members who had been identified as Dean supporters reached the polls. But since there was a high turnout, their significance was diluted. This is a lesson Democrats need to keep in mind: if turnout is going to be high in November, the union effort will have less impact. Ask Dick Gephardt.