Who's Winning the Invisible Primary?

Keep your eye on three indicators--organization, fund-raising, and buzz--for the probable Dem nominee

Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg has some advice for Presidential candidates and campaign-watchers alike: Don't pay too much attention to the early polls. "At this point," she says, "they pick up nothing but name recognition."

So if nationwide surveys about the nine Democratic hopefuls for 2004 are unreliable predictors, how do you figure out what's going on six months before the first votes are cast in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses? Who's real? Who's delusional? Who'll be a footnote a fortnight into the new year?

There is a way. The Democrats are already sweating through an invisible primary that could well determine the nomination. Indeed, political veterans are closely monitoring three indicators that are reliable oracles of political fortunes: fund-raising, organization, and buzz.

In the quarter-century since Presidential fund-raising has been disclosed publicly, the eventual nominee has dominated at least one leg of the invisible primary. If that holds true for 2004, it's good news for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, and Missouri Representative Richard A. Gephardt. North Carolina Senator John Edwards is hanging on by a thread, as is Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. And right now the forget-about-it crowd includes Florida Senator Bob Graham, community activist Al Sharpton, Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich, and former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley-Braun.

The most surprising underachiever is Lieberman. Despite a Gallup Poll in June that put him atop the pack with the backing of 21% of Democratic-leaning voters, the 2000 Vice-Presidential nominee has come up short in the invisible primary, a victim of high expectations. "He hasn't raised the money that the press thought he would raise," says St. Mary's University political scientist Andy Hernandez.

If poll-leader Lieberman isn't doing well, who is? Dean, who scores a scant 7% in the national Gallup Poll, raked in more than $7.5 million in the second quarter -- including a record-setting $4 million haul on the Internet. That topped the hefty $7.4 million gathered by Edwards in the first three months of the year, 63% of it from fellow lawyers and lobbyists, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Also in the money is Kerry. Even without help from the fortune of his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, he has $11 million in the bank -- the most of any contender.

If history is any guide, one of those three men will be the 2004 nominee. In five of the past six primary seasons, the Democrat with the biggest cash balance on June 30 the year before the election -- or the most prolific early fund-raiser -- went on to capture the nomination. The sole exception was Bill Clinton, who entered the wide-open 1992 race in the fall of '91 after Mario Cuomo of New York opted out.

So early money is likely to be vital -- even more so because of the Democratic Party's front-loaded primary process. Without a large pool of cash, a candidate making a splash in Iowa or the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary will not be able to crisscross the country and buy TV ads for expensive second-wave showdowns in delegate-rich states such as Michigan and California. And plenty of green will be needed to respond to an anticipated $200 million-plus Republican assault on the presumptive nominee.

The compressed primary season -- something party leaders devised to avoid a bloody and divisive fight -- also places a premium on campaign organization. One beneficiary is Gephardt, who has assembled some of Washington's brightest political minds. And he can count on unions for grassroots muscle.

Team Gephardt will get a run for its money from the Kerry Crew, which is rich with veterans of the 2000 Gore campaign, including strategist Bob Shrum and grassroots organizer Michael Whouley. Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, who is neutral in the '04 contest, says Kerry "has the Cadillac of staffs.... [They] know how to slug it out in a knock-down, drag-out process."

And a slugfest is just what the '04 race could become, especially if Dean's insurgency continues to pick up steam. The outspoken Vermonter, who regularly proclaims himself leader of "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," has become the darling of liberal activists. For example, he swept to victory in a June 14 straw poll at the Wisconsin state Democratic convention with nearly four times the support of second-place finisher Kerry. And he was the clear favorite of a June 24-25 virtual primary sponsored by the liberal Web group moveon.org.

Using the Internet as an organizing tool, Dean has gone from a staff of six and $157,000 in the bank on Jan. 6 to a database of 180,000 people, including 70,000 contributors. Another sign of organizational muscle: On July 7, Dean became the first candidate to qualify for federal matching funds after collecting at least $5,000 in small contributions in 20 states.

That's one more reason Dean leads in the "buzz" category. "The cocktail chatter has gone from 'Howard Who from Whoville' to 'Can this guy be the nominee?"' says Democratic consultant Dane Strother, who is not aligned with any campaign.

That remains to be seen, but Dean is learning that the buzz can be a buzz saw. After his unsteady performance on NBC's Meet the Press on June 22, independent Boston pollster Gerry Chervinsky concluded that Dean "would be branded another McGovern, and Bush would beat him in a landslide."

Maybe. But a half-year can be an eternity in politics, and there's plenty of time for any candidate to, in the words of former President George H.W. Bush, get "Big Mo." Chances are, however, that the man with the "mo" will be one of the leaders of the invisible primary.

By Richard S. Dunham in Washington

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.