Despite two month of often brutal battering from his foes in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination–or perhaps because of it–Howard Dean remains well positioned to finish at or near the front of the pack in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Strong finishes in those high-profile contests, which Dean identified more than two years ago as critical to what was then an “impossible dream” candidacy, ought to provide tangible evidence that the former Vermont governor’s Internet-driven, decentralized and seemingly seat-of-the-pants campaign is, in fact, the real thing.
Even before anyone votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, however, Dean has already won the Jan Schakowsky primary. And that may be even more important to his nomination prospects. Schakowsky, an aggressive progressive who is one of the few grassroots organizers currently serving in Congress, does not live anywhere near Iowa or New Hampshire. She represents the northwest side of Chicago and liberal suburbs like Evanston, and she flexes her electoral muscles in the historically rough-and-tumble politics of Cook County, Illinois, not the farm country of the rural Midwest or the small towns of New England. The Illinois primary isn’t until March 16, two months after Iowa decides. So how could Schakowsky’s endorsement, which was barely noted outside her home state, possibly matter as much as the superhyped results from the first caucus and primary states?
The answer is that contests for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations are not marathons run by dynamic contenders who merely gather bursts of energy from good finishes in snowbound Iowa or New Hampshire and then develop what a losing contender for the 1980 GOP nod, George H.W. Bush, referred to as “the Big Mo.” It is important to remember that the momentum Bush I achieved with a surprise win in the Iowa caucuses that year was insufficient to overcome broad enthusiasm in state parties for the man he upset there, Ronald Reagan. Bush poured most of his energy into securing Iowa, but Reagan had a national network of supporters, and that made all the difference.
Rather than marathons, nomination contests are actually fifty state relay races. Momentum surely matters, but not as much as backing from local politicos and activists who take responsibility for winning state after state for the candidate who has secured their support. If Iowa or New Hampshire really were definitional, Estes Kefauver, Gary Hart and Dick Gephardt should have been Democratic nominees, while Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan and John McCain should have carried the GOP banner. They all secured high-profile victories in New Hampshire primaries or Iowa caucuses only to find they lacked the support they needed in the other forty-eight states. Former California Governor Jerry Brown, who made three runs for the Democratic presidential nomination in three different decades, argues that it is this “state-by-state combat” that decides nominations, not showboating wins in Iowa or New Hampshire. “All fifty states send delegates to the convention,” says Brown. “When you start counting delegates, you understand that they all matter.”