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.