The Magazine

A Not-So-Unstoppable Frontrunner

From the October 13, 2003 issue: The Dean campaign's rendezvous with reality.

Oct 13, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 05 • By DAVID TELL
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NOT UNTIL SOMETHING like the first of August did conventional Washington opinion finally wake up to the possibility that this mad-as-hell, antiwar Howard Dean fellow might just have a realistic shot at the Democratic presidential nomination. But after that it was off to the races. In no time flat, and based on the very same evidence that had awakened them in the first place, the conventional opinion people started upgrading Dean's candidacy from the realistic to the highly promising and beyond, as if he'd all but sewn things up. "The former Vermont governor may be"--thus spake cable-news oracle William Schneider on August 5--"unstoppable." Unstoppable, for example, even in the intricate, union and party-machine dominated caucus politics of Iowa, where a Des Moines Register poll had Howard Dean (23 percent), the self-described insurgent, vaulting into a rulebook-defying lead over his much better-known and better-wired rivals. Both presumed labor-movement favorite Dick Gephardt (21 percent) and presumed national frontrunner John Kerry (14 percent) were said to be running inert and perilously buzz-deficient campaigns.

No doubt the Register poll was a perfectly accurate, summer snapshot of Iowa sentiment about the top three guys, Dean, Gephardt, and Kerry--among, that is, the slight majority of likely Democratic caucus-goers then inclined to express a sentiment for either Dean or Gephardt or Kerry. Fully 42 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers were not yet so inclined, however, either because they hadn't got around to deciding whom to root for, or because they were still prepared, for the time being at least, to root for one of the underdogs:

Joe Lieberman, maybe, whose strategists concede that he can't even "start to win the nomination" until after New Hampshire, and who meantime hardly pretends to be contesting Iowa. Or Carol Moseley-Braun, who hardly pretends to be contesting anywhere. Or John Edwards, who's been stumping everywhere, rarely failing to win excellent reviews--but rarely managing to win appreciable support. Or Dennis Kucinich, whose appreciable support, his press releases boast, includes endorsements from such "prominent activists" as "spiritual teacher" Ram Dass, best known for his enthusiastic, bulk-quantity consumption of LSD. Or Bob Graham, to whom a Ram Dass endorsement might look pretty good right about now. Or Al Sharpton, who is Al Sharpton.

It's not quite right to say, as spokesmen for single-digit candidates like these always do, that state-specific horserace polls like the Register's, conducted six months before the state in question will cast its votes, are "meaningless." Not even the national polls are "meaningless." (Though they probably ought to be; as recently as a few weeks ago, somewhere between a third and a half of all Democrats were still telling survey researchers that no, they hadn't any opinion, favorable or otherwise, about their party's purportedly unstoppable phenomenon, Howard Dean--because they'd never heard of him.) For good or ill, it's an inescapable fact that certain key groups of people--the kind who make out contribution checks and put up yard signs--do pay exaggerated attention to early polling numbers, using them as tips about who's worth working for and who's a waste of time. And all things being equal, the more money and footsoldier assistance a worth-it candidate attracts, the better he's able to sell himself to voters who'll answer future polls--which then attract further donors and volunteers, and so on.

But all things are not equal, and the good-poll-begets-help-begets-victory algorithm becomes less and less reliable as time goes by. For the most part, truly marginal presidential campaigns just don't last very long nowadays. The snows come and the campaigns die, and their would-be supporters are cast out among the still-undecided, all of them forced to choose, from the winnowed field, someone new to vote for. And it is not a choice that ordinary voters typically resolve on the basis of which candidate had a two-point lead in the polls six months ago. Four years ago, in October 1999, just three months shy of the balloting, Bill Bradley had a seven-point lead over Al Gore in New Hampshire, had closed to within three points in Iowa, and had a several-hundred-thousand-dollar war chest advantage, too. Bradley wound up getting crushed.

In other words: Howard Dean's current top-dog status in the Democratic presidential sweepstakes is a dependable indicator that he will eventually win the nomination only to the extent that his current top-dog status is the product of factors that his rivals are powerless to alter. So what might those factors be?