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Gephardt's Last Stand

From the December 22, 2003 issue: The Iowa showdown.

Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By DAVID TELL
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South Central Iowa, December 7

THE CAMPAIGN CALENDAR is against you. Already the camera crews and stage-prop crowds are beginning to take over, and the rope lines are going up, and soon enough it'll become pretty much physically impossible to form a personal impression of the Democratic party's likely nominee for president next year. None of the men who still have a realistic hope for that prize will any longer be within reach of even the most determined civilian--certainly not where more-than-momentary, relatively unscripted, and intimate conversational encounters are concerned. In that sense, at least, our current election cycle is operating like any other in the modern, television age.

But we're not quite there yet. The window hasn't closed for good, and a man can still watch a real-life presidential candidate talking to real-life voters, up close and in the flesh, for hours on end, especially if he's willing to wake up at 4 A.M. for a predawn flight to Des Moines on a Sunday. I have taken such a flight today, in order to watch Richard Gephardt campaign among the Iowans he hopes will vote for him in next month's caucuses. And I have spent my time on the mostly empty plane trying to read my way to a provisional conclusion about why our current election cycle, in every essential respect, camera crews and rope lines notwithstanding, is very much not operating on a conventional schedule, or by conventional logic. Put another way: How come it's Howard Dean, of all people, and not someone like . . . well, Gephardt, who appears, weeks and weeks before the first official ballot has been cast, to be running away with the race?

A new polling analysis by the Pew Research Center confirms the anomaly. And rather deepens the mystery, in fact. The ordinary rule of thumb is that people are disposed to "vote their hearts" in early-state presidential primaries. Which is thought to mean that hard-boiled general-election imperatives remain a relatively distant concern in these contests: Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats will be less likely preoccupied with identifying the candidate best equipped to unseat President Bush in November, and more likely, instead, simply to choose the guy whose views most closely match their own. Or so it's expected.

But over the past three weeks, no fewer than seven different reputable and well-known polling outfits have released data indicating that Howard Dean is thoroughly dominating the once-heavily-favored John Kerry in New Hampshire--by a 24-percentage-point average margin. And Pew's research suggests that neither man's views have much to do with it: "Supporters of Dean and Kerry exhibit few issue differences." If anything, on the domestic policy front, which both candidates ritually contend ought to be paramount, a significant number of New Hampshire Democrats, whether they realize it or not, are making up their minds despite the issues; a plurality of Dean supporters, for example, actually disagree with Dean--and agree with Kerry--about the need to preserve some portion of the Bush tax cuts. New Hampshire, then, is not tilting hard toward Howard Dean because people are "voting their hearts," as that phrase is traditionally understood.

Instead, according to Pew, Dean is far ahead of Kerry in New Hampshire, and threatening to snuff out Dick Gephardt here in Iowa, because he enjoys a sizable lead in both states among Democrats "who place a greater priority on defeating Bush." In other words: Dean voters become Dean voters--defying all the standard predictive formulas; on paper, either Kerry or Gephardt would be their party's stronger general-election standard-bearer--because they've convinced themselves that Dean's the winner's bet. Who on earth are these people?

In demographic terms, it turns out they are very much who their detractors say they are: an elite sociocultural minority of the overall American electorate. The Pew study reports that Howard Dean appeals most intensely to "the well-educated liberal wing" of the Democratic party. Here in Iowa, for instance, more than two-thirds of Dean's supporters have attended college and more than half favor gay marriage. By contrast, fewer than half of Dick Gephardt's supporters have made it past high school and nearly two-thirds of them oppose gay marriage.