Tuesday, January 20, 2004

The Dean of Oz

Wow. Waited a few hours to reflect before posting this, as I'm still reeling from the results. I had previously bought into the conventional wisdom that the Iowa results would not shift the dynamic of the race between Dean and anti-Dean (i.e., Clark). But it's clear now that because the candidates all have such "soft" support, both Dean and Clark's strengths are overstated and it's still anyone's game. And obviously I was a jackass to pronounce Kerry's demise. But at the risk of more embarrassment, some post-Iowa tea-leaf reading:

The key question: Can Dean recover from this drubbing?

I think it's highly unlikely.

It's hard to exaggerate the significance of what happened in Iowa. Dean's entire campaign is built on the idea of a movement -- that the people belong to something larger than themselves. They "have the power" to "take back America." However, unlike most political movements, it's not based on an actual cause (e.g., civil rights, sufferage) but on its own success. Or specifically, the Dean movement is based on (1) the authenticity and purity of the struggle; (2) the revolutionary change the movement will help usher in. Dean can still ride the authenticity angle a little further, but the Dean Revolution is now the political equivalent of WebVan -- a great theory that has crapped out in practice. Remember, Dean campaigned for two years in Iowa, a small, comparatively anti-war state that a natural for the kind of grass-roots mobilization that Dean's campaign has championed. To that end, the guy has outspent everyone, and bussed in thousands of volunteers from out-of-state to GOTV. What does he get for this? 18%. Kerry beat him among both first time caucus-goers *and* anti-war people. What we're left with is a guy better suited to be a high school football coach.

Can anyone now take seriously the idea that Dean's ragtag army will pull millions of new voters into the voting booth in November? Watching one of those caucus re-runs on C-SPAN brings me back to college, where some well-meaning dweeb would try to guilt me into becoming a vegan. If I want to institute a ban on, say, the illicit posting of distortedly effeminate pictures of dapper Asian men, I'd try to get a bunch of well-meaning college students to go around protesting against the ban. No group is less persuasive than college activists, and anecdotal evidence suggests Dean's "Perfect Storm" activism backfired as Iowa voters got fed up with aggressive telemarketing pitches from Wesleyan punks.

But the bubble has burst. Many Deaniacs are disillusioned.
Dean's now being compared to tech stocks -- a tale of the bubble bursting from inflated hype. That's about right. The Dean campaign is all about buzz generating more buzz. Folks who weren't interested in politics were talking about Dean. You hear his name uttered by punk kids in Seattle and arty hipsters in Silver Lake. When you lose the buzz -- when you're deemed a has-been, it's hard to recover. I think Dean's lost "it", and now he's just like the other guys. And when Dean's pitted against Clark, Edwards, and even to some degree Kerry on a level playing field, it's clear he's just not as formidable a candidate.

But that doesn't explain why Dean did so badly. Beyond the negative media coverage and the "angry candidate backlash," another good explanation is that voters are burnt out on Iraq. If that's the case, the best scenario for a Dean comeback is Iraq to get worse, fanning the flames of voter outrage. Otherwise, I don't think his attempt at being a sober issues candidate will work (Edwards has that beat covered), though he obviously should start pinning his campaign to something substantive, to something other than the "movement" and his own authenticity. Health care, perhaps? The good doctor still has money, organization, die-hard supporters, and some admirable and appealing qualities that make him a good candidate. He's got numerous tangible advantages, but it's just that there are better candidates. And today, it looks very much like Governor Dean will playing Governor Moonbeam to Clark/Edwards/Kerry's Bill Clinton.

That development, for those of us who want Bush defeated the worst way, is a good thing.

p.s. E.J. Dionne has a very nice piece that explains Dean's current plight: he played a necessary role in moving the candidates into a stronger, more combative stance against Bush, but now he's becoming obsolete as more electable pseudo-Deans have emerged. Solution: make Dean DNC head or HHS Sec!

Electability and money

In the comments section, Michael Wolfe raised some important issues about matching funds and electability that have been largely discussed only on political junkie blogs. The concern among many about Clark is that, having taken federal matching funds that limits his campaign spending to about $40 million to the Convention, will be a fish in a barrel for Karl Rove during the dog days of summer if he were to win the nomination. It's a legitimate concern, and it's one consideration that clearly tilts in favor of Dean and now Kerry. But this idea (floated often by Deaniacs) that somehow Rove/Fox News/Right-Wing Media Cabal will turn Clark or Edwards into charred toast seems kinda paranoid.

The money is far less important during the summer months than it is (1) during the primary season, when you're looking to create name recognition and generate momentum to win in a crowded field; (2) the closing two months, when you want to bombard swing states with ad buys and pour money into GOTV operations. During the summer, money is best spent on organization, and there, the DNC can lay the groundwork. The DNC is currently in trouble, but when the dust settles on the nomination, I expect the contributions to pick up dramatically in the summer months. So I think both Clark and Edwards will be okay; I really don't see the money issue being decisive either in the primaries or the general. And if the Iowa results prove anything, it's that process and organizational strength only go so far; an attractive candidate is still more important.

The key is shaping your image for the media. If it's true that the race starts off at a 45-45 split, that remaining ten percent is unlikely to even be paying attention until the debates, if past "swing voter" behavior is any guide. So even if you're sitting on wads of cash in July, that money on TV ads just isn't gonna be that cost-effective. What's more important is in making sure the media's playing a good "meme" about you. As the Dean debacle in Iowa shows, negative media kills. Clark and Edwards, though both vulnerable too different charges, have the best chance of withstanding the media scrutiny due to their superior presentation skills.

And remember, Clark or Edwards would have something just as powerful as "money": they're running full-time for President, and they can show up on TV as often as their advisors think is necessary.

The main problem will be in dealing with under-the-radar attack ads from Rove/RNC, but here's where I think the Internet and connectivity will help: the Clarkie who hears a dirty radio ad in Lima, Ohio can just post the info on the Clark blog, which will then mobilize his activist core to action. This is one area where the internet will make a difference.

Me, I gave money to Clark because as much as I like much of what Dean is doing, I think he's not nearly as appealing a general election candidate and Joe Trippi's "New Voter/Activate the Base" strategy is doomed to failure. (The base will be motivated to throw this bum out of office; "new voters" are a mirage.)