Question Day: Howard Dean and 2004?

Jonathan Bernstein's Question Day: Howard Dean and the 2004 presidential primary.

Over on Twitter, Alex asked: "With endorsements from H. Clinton & Gore, did you assume Dean was winning invisible primary in 2004? What worked against him?"

(Note: I don't think Hillary Clinton did endorse Dean in 2004, and I can't find it in a quick search, but Gore definitely did).

I actually wrote a paper about this one long ago (gated, alas), so I do have something to say about it.

Here's my analysis. Party actors are looking for someone who agrees with them on policy, who is acceptable to other party actors, and who can win. Early in the 2004 cycle, John Kerry looked like the best bet, and the party began coalescing around him. Then came the Dean surge. It got the attention of many party actors because of the possibility that Dean had tapped into new political energy through his online organizing. Most party actors didn't understand it and weren't sure it was for real, but they also didn't have the capacity to evaluate it. By its very nature, this mysterious new phenomenon wouldn't show up in a traditional evaluation of the campaign. There was a chance that Dean had access to something like magic, and that it would work at the polls.

As a result, in fall 2007, Dean started picking up support (including high-visibility endorsements), which basically translated as party actors saying -- "Wait a second. Maybe there's something here?" Since Dean was otherwise a viable, if not exactly strong, candidate, party leaders prepared for the possibility that the magic was real.

This lasted right up until the voting closed in Iowa, when the magic was exposed (in the perception of party actors) as bunk. Dean's campaign had proved just as vulnerable as a traditional campaign to attacks. The aura of magic suddenly disappeared, ending his run.

The "Dean Scream" -- his Iowa election-night yowl that supposedly tanked his campaign -- was simply an invitation to party actors, who had concluded the magic was phony, to pile on Dean and settle on a more conventional, and conventionally stronger, candidate.

What was significant about all this is that it suggested that the primaries and caucuses have in some sense returned to what they were in the old, pre-reform process (that is, pre-1972 cycle). Back then, party actors used primaries to test how actual voters would respond to candidates who otherwise seemed like good choices. The most famous test, I suppose, was whether anti-Catholic prejudice would show John Kennedy to be a poor choice. That was "answered" by his win in the West Virginia primary. Of course, this kind of test is pretty iffy, but that doesn't really matter as far as nomination politics is concerned; what matters is what party actors are thinking.

I think Dean started out as a marginally viable candidate: obscure politician from a small state with no particular strengths based on his electoral career. I think, too, that Democrats were more than a little spooked by the potential electoral implications of the September 11 attacks, and even though the party was in the midst of turning decisively against the Iraq War, they also wanted someone with (perceived) national security credentials. Dean wasn't a good fit for that.

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