1. It’s not the movement, it’s the man. Voters vote for a person, not the forces he or she unleashes. Howard Dean did birth a movement of sorts. It has been made up in part of political newcomers outraged by the war in Iraq and George W. Bush’s lies. The rise of this Internet-fueled activism was the story of the campaign–until Iowa. When the voting started, the only issue was the candidates, not their troops. Dean was judged on his own. And he did not sufficiently impress the caucus attendees. Was it his gaffes? Did he come across as too angry, too unsteady, or not experienced enough? The reasons don’t matter. In the electoral arena, a movement can only go so far as its leader can carry it.
2. The war didn’t matter. An entrance poll taken at the caucuses showed that 75 percent of the attendees opposed the war in Iraq. But only 14 percent said the war had influenced their selection of a nominee. This somewhat explains Dean’s slide. The candidates who had voted to grant Bush authorization for war garnered 81 percent of the vote. The two antiwar candidates–Dean and Dennis Kucinich–attracted 19 percent. Voters who disagreed with Kerry and Edwards on the war were still willing to support them. Why? Perhaps the old cliche of political consultants provides the explanation: elections are about the future, not the past. Even if voters were on the same side as Dean on the war, it did not mean they believed he would be able to beat Bush or be able to handle the national security challenges that lie ahead. Being right only gets you so far. A candidate has to offer more than that. The Iowa returns indicate the war has not yet become an overwhelmingly divisive–or decisive–political issue.
3. Voters want to be reassured, not merely fired up. Dean had the passion. He pumped up the volume. (He shouted like a madman on election night, promising to win the primaries to come.) His message and method certainly struck a nerve and drew hundreds of thousands of Americans to his campaign. But the Iowa caucuses suggest that Dean did not inspire confidence among caucus goer. Are voters–particularly in the post-9/11 era–looking for leaders who not only can express outrage but who can also project calm and strength?
4. Negative campaigning works. Dean’s drop was not entirely of his own making. He was battered by his competitors, and the media attention he drew was often caustic. Negative ads tend to take a toll–especially when they are relentless. Unfortunately for Gephardt, his attacks on Dean also appeared to have damaged his own campaign and created an opening for Kerry and Edwards. Is there a lesson here for the general election? Perhaps. Bush will have $200 million or so to spend in the months before the summer. That can buy a lot of mud to hurl at whoever winds up the Democratic nominee. But also the Democratic nominee will have to figure out how to balance his attacks against Bush with a positive, upbeat message.
5. Special interests are bad. Every Democratic candidate in Iowa bashed special interests. Each promised that if he were elected he would do battle with HMOs, drug companies, insurance firms, agribusiness, power companies and the like. On election night, John Kerry stood before a banner that read, “Fighting for Us,” and proclaimed, “I have a special message for the special interests that call the Bush White House home: We’re coming. You’re leaving. And don’t let the door hit you on your way out.” This was bad news for the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council wing of the party, which has often counseled against class warfare or corporate-bashing. Populist rhetoric (which, of course, is different from populist action) reigns supreme–at least for now.
6. Is money enough? In recent years, the candidate with the biggest campaign bank account at the start of the primary process always bagged the nomination. Dean was in that position before Iowa. His money allowed him to create large organizations in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere, and to fund an advertising barrage in key states. But is the money enough to sustain Dean’s candidacy? Will this be the year a candidate with less money triumphs?
7. Can the Democrats count on traditional Big Labor? Richard Gephardt had a lock on the industrial unions in Iowa. They vowed to turn out their members for him. But these promises ended up meaning little. Either the labor unions failed to get their folks to the caucuses, or they failed to persuade their people to vote for the guy they endorsed. In either case, Democrats ought to worry about the ability of the large trade unions to produce vast blocs of votes for the Democratic challenger in November.
8. Dennis Kucinich is not acquitting himself well. Kucinich’s 1 percent does not provide much justification for continuing his progressive campaign. But he also committed a misstep when he struck a deal with John Edwards and pledged his voters to Edwards in caucuses where Kucinich would not reach the cutoff. Since Kucinich is running as an antiwar candidate–boasting he will pull the troops out of Iraq faster than the others–it was odd that he forged an alliance with Edwards, who has supported the war in Iraq. Why not Dean, who shares Kucinich’s opposition to the war? In any event, this tactical move made little difference in the final results. But it did tarnish Kucinich’s status as a stand-by-principles politician.
9. Ban the caucuses. Anyone watching the caucuces on C-SPAN–which was the best reality TV of the season–could see that this is a poor way of choosing a nominee. It’s not grassroots democracy at its best. It’s chaos. In precincts where candidates do not hit 15 percent, rampant dealmaking ensues, as the other camps try to entice the supporters of the under-15 candidates to join them. How do they do this? By offering them delegate slots and by making arguments that often are factually suspect. The final results, then, do not reflect the true preferences of the people who bothered to attend the caucuses. They are a partial reflection, shaped by whatever wheedling goes on while the “voting” is in process. A primary–and direct voting–would provide a more accurate representation of Iowans’ wishes.
10. The pundits know what they’re talking about. Before the Dean movement–or bubble–fully emerged, political prognosticators pegged Kerry as the front-runner. He had the stature, the gravitas, the experience, the money. He was, many said (myself included), the default candidate. But Kerry ran a poor campaign and spent months failing to connect. He also devoted too much time and energy to swiping at Dean–which made Kerry look desperate and small. But once he stopped flailing, and once Iowa voters got closer to having to make a choice, Kerry returned to his pre-Dean spot: a by-the-numbers Democratic candidate acceptable (if not inspirational) to many Democratic voters. The pundits had that right. But after the surprising results in Iowa, they would be wise not to make any further predictions for the duration of the race.
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