While the fact was little noted, voting has finally begun in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. More than 43,000 voters in Washington, DC, participated in a non-binding primary Tuesday and, though most of the leading Democratic contenders chose to skip the contest, the results still provided some important insights regarding the race. To wit:
1.) HOWARD DEAN’S APPEAL IS FOR REAL. The former Vermont governor won 43 percent of the vote in a primary that saw a higher turnout than past presidential primary voting in the District of Columbia. Dean easily outdistanced other candidates who put more time and energy into the DC contest. And he showed strength across a city where African-American voters form a substantial majority, offering him an opportunity to counter the claims that he lacks the record and the style to appeal beyond his initial base of support among young, white, middle-class activists. Dean made note of that fact in a call Tuesday night to a gathering of several hundred enthusiastic supporters at the Lucky Bar in Northwest Washington. Echoing the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s campaign theme from insurgent races for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988, Dean told his cheering backers, “We’re going to build a rainbow coalition to take over this country for the people who own it.”
Dean’s win in the DC vote has meaning beyond the fact that the former governor of a small, rural state collected significant support from urban voters. Dean was the only one of the supposed frontrunners in the race who allowed his name to remain on the DC ballot. That was a risk, because party leaders succeeded in pressuring Wesley Clark, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman to pull out of a DC primary that would choose no delegates but that was condemned by officials in Iowa and New Hampshire as an affront to the carefully guarded “first-in-the-nation” status of those two states. It was also a risk because, with the Iowa vote coming next Monday, Dean was not going to be able to do much personal campaigning in the district as “advisory” primary approached.
Dean chose to remain in the running in DC as part of a 50-state strategy that puts an uncommon level of faith in prominent local backers and volunteers to deliver the votes on election day.
In DC, as Dean strategists had hoped, the campaign’s much-vaunted volunteer army took up the slack and put on a genuine campaign. Prominent members of the city council – including Jack Evans, who fought to assure that voters in the nation’s capital would cast the first ballots in this year’s presidential race — endorsed Dean. More than 30,000 Dean appeals were mailed to the most likely voters. Blue-and-white “Dean for President” signs appeared on utility polls and vacant building fronts. Congressional Black Caucus chairman Elijah Cummings, a Democratic representative from neighboring Maryland, headlined a rally that drew several hundred people to a downtown church on the Saturday before the voting. And on election day, at many polling places in the city, the only person handing out leaflets was a Dean backer.