Percy Daley has seen a lot of politics in his eighty years, but he never saw anything like the crowd that showed up at the Belfast, Maine, city hall when Democrats gathered for their presidential caucus on February 8. “People were showing up in droves,” said Daley, who as the convener of the local caucus is used to seeing about thirty Democrats, not the 150 who arrived to choose among John Kerry, Howard Dean and local favorite Dennis Kucinich. Daley shifted the caucus to the much larger municipal boathouse and, he says, “I don’t think we lost anyone when we made the move. Everyone wanted to register their vote against Bush.”
Belfast was not alone. Almost twice as many Democrats showed up this year in Maine as in 1992, when, Maine Democratic Party chair Dottie Melanson says, it appears the previous record was set. Twice as many people participated in Iowa’s 2004 caucuses as turned up to decide between Al Gore and Bill Bradley in 2000, and the same was true for Arizona’s primary. New Hampshire primary participation broke the previous record by 50,000 votes. “I’ve never seen this much interest in an election,” exclaimed Art Link, former governor of North Dakota, where Democratic caucus-goers outnumbered Republicans 4 to 1.
“Democrats are more energized and angry than at any time since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency,” says Curtis Gans, of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. While high primary and caucus participation does not guarantee that more Democrats will vote in November, Gans says it “probably translates into higher turnout and more Democrats at the polls” this fall. That prospect terrifies Republicans. The fight for the Democratic nomination, which Republicans had hoped would produce a battered challenger to the President, has instead confirmed Bush’s vulnerability. Democratic candidates took some shots at one another, but voters generally tuned in to the chorus of criticism of Bush. And it resonated. As Iowa Democrats prepared to caucus in mid-January, Bush was still surfing the wave of approval that followed the capture of Saddam Hussein. By the time Democrats went to the polls in Tennessee and Virginia to give Kerry his eleventh and twelfth wins of fourteen contests so far, they were voting for a man polls showed to be leading Bush. Kerry, who won overwhelming victories in both states, claimed that “Americans are voting for change.”
Evidence of the extent to which the Beat Bush mantra has energized and unified Democrats is particularly troubling to GOP strategists, who had hoped to use hot-button issues–the latest being gay marriage–to divide Democrats. Perhaps just as troubling for the Bush team is the surprising level of anti-Bush sentiment among Republican primary voters. In New Hampshire, more than 20 percent of voters who took Republican ballots did not vote for Bush; more than 8,000 GOP primary voters wrote in Democratic contenders like Kerry. In conservative Oklahoma, 10 percent of Republican primary voters cast their ballots for Bill Wyatt, an unknown challenger to the President.
Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie has developed a nasty case of intensity envy; he’s telling reporters GOP primary partisans really are as passionate as the Democrats. But that’s just spin. Gillespie wants the Democratic fight–with its Tuesday-night victory parties and Wednesday-morning “Kerry Wins” headlines–to be over. Unfortunately, so does Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe. Instead of maintaining the best roadshow the party has had in years, McAuliffe wants to get on to fundraising for November. He’s likely to get his wish. Wesley Clark has thrown in the towel, and it’s difficult to see how John Edwards or Howard Dean can continue spinning weak second-place finishes into moral victories much longer.
The rush to finish is not entirely a matter of the party command forcing its will on the cadres. There’s not much question that primary and caucus voters are thinking ahead to November. In Belfast, the caucus passed a resolution asking the United Nations to provide observers to assure that this year’s election is not marred by bad ballots and bad counts like those Democrats believe cost them Florida, and the White House, in 2000. “The feeling was that, with all these people showing up so early in the year to oppose Bush, there is not going to be a problem turning out enough voters to beat him,” explained Percy Daley. “We just want to make sure that, come November, they will all be counted.”