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Avoiding Dean's Mistakes | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Avoiding Dean's Mistakes

Barack Obama's victory in the hard-fought Democratic primary for an open US Senate seat from Illinois has instantaneously made him a political star. CNN analysts were calling the civil rights lawyer-turned-legislator "the man to watch in Illinois" and "the country's hottest Senate candidate." The New York Times and The Washington Post are weighing in with glowing reports. US Senator Jon Corzine, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is ecstatic about having a smart, articulate and politically-savvy candidate who looks to be well positioned to pick up the seat of retiring Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald. Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe was even more ecstatic about the prospect that Obama, the child of Kenyan and American parents, would give the party a fresh young African-American leader to feature at its national convention in Boston.

For backers of Howard Dean's failed presidential campaign, however, the Obama win offers something else: a bittersweet reminder of what might have been. There was a great deal about the Obama campaign that mirrored the most interesting and impressive aspects of the Dean candidacy. Obama made early and effective use of the internet and drew supporters together using Meet Ups. He built an enthusiastic network of supporters that included college students, suburban liberals and veteran progressive activists in Chicago. Like Dean, Obama was an early and outspoken critic of the Bush administration's scheming to invade Iraq, he criticized the Patriot Act and he promised to "act like a Democrat" if elected. While most of organized labor endorsed another, "safer" candidate, Obama secured the support of the Service Employees International Union, a growing union that frequently flexes its political muscles in Democratic primaries and that also backed Dean. U.S. Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr. and Jan Schakowsky, both Dean backers, campaigned hard for Obama.

So what went right for Obama, who on Tuesday won a landslide victory over a field of better-financed and at least initially better-known Democratic contenders? How did he fight his way from the back of the pack to the front of a multi-candidate field and then, unlike Dean, stay there through election day? While it is important to be remember that national and state campaigns are dramatically different, it is fair to say that Obama did three things that Dean didn't:

1.) Obama deliberately avoided peaking too soon. He started at the rear of the pack. As the candidate himself said, "I think it's fair to say that the conventional wisdom was we could not win. We didn't have enough money. We didn't have enough organization. There was no way that a skinny guy from the South Side (of Chicago) with a funny name like Barack Obama could win a statewide race." Obama and his media strategist, David Axelrod, intentionally kept expectations low. Where the Dean campaign spent a fortune in mid-2003 to win the media attention that would rocket him to frontrunner status, the Obama campaign kept its powder dry. "It was our plan to finish hard, when people were paying attention," explained Axelrod. "One of the great disciplines of the campaign was not to spend money early and waste those resources." Thus, while Obama was outspent 6-1 by one of his foes, millionaire Blair Hull, he was able to hold his own in the "air wars" at the close of the campaign."

2.) When the competition intensified, Obama kept his cool. Like U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, who won a 1992 Democratic primary after two better-known and better-financed opponents went wildly negative on one another, Obama presented himself as a calm, attractive alternative to foes whose flaws became increasingly evident at the frenzied finish of the campaign. Even as polls began to identify him as the frontrunner in late February, he campaigned as the nice-guy underdog and he kept on message. Unlike Dean, Obama gave the media few if any gaffes to highlight. In this sense, he was more like another of this year's Democratic presidential contenders, North Carolina Senator John Edwards. That's no coincidence. Obama's chief strategist, Axelrod, played a similar role with the Edwards campaign.

3.) To the very end, Obama focused on his base in Chicago's vote-rich African-American neighborhoods. Obama represents a neighborhood with a substantial African-American population in the state Senate, and he ran an unsuccessful but high-profile Democratic primary for a congressional seat in 2000. And he earned the active support of key political players in the African-American community, such as Jackson and U.S. Representative Danny Davis. Obama's other appeal was to white liberals, a point emphasized by commercials that featured testimonials from Schakowsky and the daughter of former U.S. Senator Paul Simon. Where the Dean campaign stretched itself thin trying to secure a big win early on, Obama's campaign remained focused on African-American and liberal wards where he could maximize his vote. He ended up winning as much as 90 percent of the vote in some Chicago precincts. Obama won close to 500,000 votes in Chicago's Cook County, beating his closest competitor by an almost 4-1 margin. Comparisons were made between Obama's strategy and that of the late Harold Washington, who was elected mayor of Chicago in 1983 at the head of a rainbow coalition of African-American and white liberal voters. While Danny Davis, a close ally of Washington, was cautious about the precise comparison, he did say that Obama "reenergized the base" and created "more energy than I've seen since Harold Washington."

Two other notes are worth making in aftermath of the Illinois voting:

* For Democrats, who are becoming cautiously optimistic about their prospects in the fight for control of the Senate, the Obama win is very good news. That's because he came through the primary reasonably unscathed, and because the excitement about his candidacy will make fund-raising easier in a tight year. Obama will face a tough race against millionaire Republican Jack Ryan, who will campaign as a "compassionate conservative." But if Obama continues to run smart, he's got a good chance of picking up a currently Republican Senate seat in a state that is likely to trend Democratic this fall. If Democrats gain the Illinois seat and the Colorado seat that Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell is vacating, they will at least be in the fight, although they are still up against the difficult reality that five southern seats currently held by Democrats are open. The interesting new development is that polls in Pennsylvania show Republican Senator Arlen Specter is facing a tougher-than-expected challenge from conservative U.S. Representative Pat Toomey in that state's April 27 Republican primary. If Specter loses in April, the Democratic candidate, U.S. Representative Joe Hoeffel, could well win in November.

* No one paid much attention to the Illinois presidential primary, which John Kerry won with more than 72 percent of the vote and 141 delegates -- giving him more than enough delegate support to attain the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in July. The only candidate who came close to competing with Kerry in Illinois was a candidate who had withdrawn from the race: John Edwards, who took just under 11 percent of the vote and appears to have secured two delegates. Even with a maximized African-American turnout, Al Sharpton ran miserably. In the first Democratic presidential primary after Sharpton endorsed John Kerry but said he would continue his campaign in order to help shape the direction of the party, the New Yorker ran behind Kerry, Edwards and two other contenders who have folded their campaigns: former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun, who withdrew from the race two months ago, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who withdrew last month. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, the only other candidate who says he is still in the running, finished even further behind.

History provides plenty of examples of Democratic challengers who have remained in the running for the party's presidential nomination even after it is beyond their grasp. They have done so to raise issues, to influence the direction of the party and to position themselves for future political endeavors. In some cases -- Ted Kennedy in 1980, Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and Jerry Brown in 1992 -- the challengers have won primaries, secured delegates and achieved what, at the least, could be described as moral victories. Sharpton and Kucinich are falling far short of the mark set by those previous contenders. When a challenger who is actually campaigning runs behind candidates who have left the race, it is hard to argue that he is having any influence on the frontrunner -- let alone on the direction of the party.

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