The Magazine

Base Anger

From the August 4 / August 11, 2003 issue: Why Howard Dean is leading the Democratic pack.

Aug 4, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 45 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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BY EARLY SPRING, journalists and political activists had begun to notice that former Vermont governor Howard Dean had a knack for firing up crowds. He was little known and badly financed, but his issues were unfudged and easy to understand: budget-balancing, civil unions for gays, a middle-of-the-road states-rights position on guns, and implacable opposition to the war in Iraq. Tying them all together was a hostility to George W. Bush that bordered on loathing. Dean has called the Bush administration a collection of "right-wing wackos," and last week, at a meeting on a New Hampshire lawn, he bluntly described the president's promise to unite Americans as "a lie."

Only in the last month has the general public remarked on Dean's rise. Democrats admire his candor. He's within two points of John Kerry in the latest University of New Hampshire poll on the primary there, taken in early July. In mid-month, one New Hampshire Republican who is considering a statewide bid polled a small sample of Democrats and Independents and found Dean at 30 percent, Kerry at 26 percent, and the others clustered in single digits.

Watching Dean pile up support is like watching Albert Pujols go after baseball's Triple Crown: He's not at the top of every category, but he's the only guy within striking distance of winning each one. Dean could conceivably win Iowa, which Kerry cannot; he could conceivably win New Hampshire, which Dick Gephardt cannot. If Dean wins Iowa, Gephardt's presidential hopes are finished; if Dean wins New Hampshire, Kerry's are badly wounded. People are beginning to speak of a "two-tier" race in New Hampshire and Iowa, with Dean joining Kerry and (to be charitable) Gephardt in tier one. But even that may underestimate Dean's strength. It's more accurate to say the race has become Howard Dean versus a half-dozen blow-dried shills for an intellectually exhausted party who are now, as one New Hampshire newspaper put it, "scurrying around New Hampshire--boring people."

The turning point for Dean came with the release of his second-quarter fundraising tally. At $7.5 million, Dean outraised all his fellow candidates. The amount of money was less important than the way he raised it: through 45,000 donors, 80 percent of whom gave under $250 apiece, and many of whom were enticed into the campaign by the Internet site MeetUp.com. These contributions are matchable by the Federal Election Commission in a general election, meaning that Dean, should he be nominated, will be able to tap election funds the others lack. What's more, these small contributions--unlike much of the financial support of the other Democratic candidates--would be quite legal even if the temporary restraining order on campaign finance reform were lifted.

But these itty-bitty donations have a symbolic value, too. The Democratic party is a wishbone of proletarian sloganeering and plutocratic direction that, when snapped, always leaves one side disillusioned. Racial and lifestyle minorities provide the electoral ballast for the party, true. But outside of those categories, the Democrats are the party of America's crème de la crème--not just the "cultural elite," as Dan Quayle put it, but the elite, period. Overwhelming evidence for this came in the form of a June study by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. It found that Republicans outraise Democrats by 63 percent to 37 percent among penny-ante donors--those who give under $200. The GOP retains that advantage at all levels up to $100,000, although it steadily narrows as the dollar amount rises. Once you hit $100,000, the Democrats really begin to clean up. They hold a fundraising advantage that widens rapidly as the numbers get more stratospheric. In contributions of over $1 million, they outraise Republicans by 92 percent to 8 percent.