ON THE EVE of the 1996 election, I had a long conversation with a friend on the Dole campaign who was traveling with the candidate as he made his last-minute hopscotch across the country. I had just offered him condolences on the race when he corrected me. Speaking from an airport pay phone in the wee hours of the morning, he explained that Bob Dole didn't just have a chance to win, but was assured of it. His exact words were: "We have this election in the bag." He then proceeded to give me a state-by-state breakdown, explaining how liberal-bias polls were distorting the numbers in California, the union turnout was going to be lower than expected in Ohio and Missouri, and that in-house polls showed a breaking "surge" across all fronts. "This thing is," he said excitedly, "In. The. Bag."
Every campaign has an internal rationale for why victory is inevitable; it goes with the territory. So too, do the last holdouts for Howard Dean.
ONE YEAR AGO TODAY, the first MeetUp for Howard Dean took place in Baltimore, Boston, Westchester, and eight other cities. Only 478 people came out for Dean that day, but even then, they believed. Today, after losing the first nine primaries (and collecting 121 delegates--only about two dozen of whom are actually committed to him), the Dean message boards on his Blog for America are full of hope.
"Cool down," explained "John Morgan" late Tuesday afternoon, "this is a marathon, not a sprint. Kerry is running low on money and has no grassroots base. Where is he going to get the money?"
"Charlie Grapski," a longtime supporter, wrote that "in the end, what will win this thing for US (and for our future), is our DETERMINATION and LONGEVITY in this race. As long as we stay focused--WE CAN WIN. WE WILL WIN. WE ARE DEAN." Mr. Grapski is a political science instructor at the University of Florida.
As the final races were being called late Tuesday night, "Katherine" wrote:
The way I read it, the attrition strategy is working. Kerry isn't getting over 50% anywhere except Missouri and Delaware, and just barely 50% in those places. . . . As the field thins, the anti-Kerry vote will be split among fewer candidates.
For Dean, delegates in two states (AZ and NM) and almost a third (ND), with nothing but grassroots efforts, is *fantastic.* Also bodes well for CA . . .
Yeah, winning NM would have been nice, but I'm happy with the way this is turning out.
IT SHOULD BE SAID that not all of the Deaniacs were happy with the way the last few weeks have turned out. A few of them acknowledged that the campaign seems to have hit a speed bump and had ideas on how to fix it. Among the more workable schemes was a 24-hour, coast-to-coast fundraising event and a nationwide garage sale for Dean.
Others were upset at the precipitous fall Dean has taken in the polls, from first to third, and sometimes fourth and fifth. The culprit most often blamed for this turn of events is the media. ("I'm feeling in the mood for a class action lawsuit against the f**king media," wrote "Jackie in OH.") Of course George W. Bush is also to blame. ("Did anyone notice how 'fortunate' it is for the White House that the ricin scare occurred . . . just as the press was getting ready to focus in depth on the WMD mess?" asked "allinnyc.") Another group was seeking a recount in the New Hampshire primary because of alleged fraud with Diebold voting machines. (In New Hampshire, Dean finished a mere 12 percentage points behind John Kerry.)
Only a small minority of the Deaniac voices allow that defeat might be in the cards. Among these people, one popular sentiment is that Dean should move to California in order to wrest the governorship from arch conservative Arnold Schwarzenegger.
THE STRANGEST THING about the reaction of the Deaniacs to Tuesday night's death rattle, was that they were, as a class, much more upbeat than they had been just a week ago after Dean's relatively narrow defeat in New Hampshire.
The morning after Dean's disappointing loss (or, as the Dean blog proclaimed it, his "Solid Second") in New Hampshire, the people posting in the comments section of the campaign's website were unhappy.
"I really don't understand where we stop Kerry now," wrote "Robert Oler." "He has pounded us into sand twice where we had much more resources than he. Did we use resources wisely? At some point the campaign owes those of us who have supported it (I've been in NH, VT, Iowa and organized in Texas) an explanation of why we lost and where we win."
"Why aren't there any more Dean ads playing here in the Albuquerque area?" asked "Page in Albuquerque." "I've contributed almost $2,000.00. I did so happily . . . but maybe you could put some of these $$$ from us supporters toward great, professional ads, and also to actually keep the ads GOING?"
"If Dean isn't the #1 decisive winner in at least one state on Feb. 3, then I'm jumping ship and going with Edwards," declared "Roscoe." "I've donated some hundreds of dollars to [Dean for America]. Given where we were three weeks ago, and now that it counts, it is a shame that campaign personnel is failing to implement an effective strategy to win."
"Cordelia Lear" named names, announcing, "I think that Trippi has become a problem." Fifteen hours later, Trippi posted his letter of resignation.
OF COURSE Cordelia didn't bring about Trippi's end--rumors of his demise had been circulating in rival camps for days. But in a very real way, the denizens of the Dean Blog for America aren't mere supporters--they're shareholders. Without the stream of cash they provide via his blog, Dean would be both beaten and broke. So he ignores the online chatter at his own peril.
It is already an established cliché that Dean's candidacy resembles a dot-com company of the 1990s. It's a cliché because it's true. The campaign began as a high concept--overt anger at the president and opposition to the war--and quickly found itself drowning in riches from its IPO to the Democratic base. It then used a wave of fawning media coverage to establish the illusion of inevitability.
The Dean campaign had organization, money, and a message. It had everything except a plausible theory of how it could win votes from a wide cross-section of Democratic voters. The business strategy the campaign did have was essentially, "Build it and they will come."
A striking feature of the Dean campaign was its burn-rate. In 2003, Dean raised $41 million. By January 30, 2004, the New York Times was reporting that the campaign had only about $5 million on hand; other reports said the number was closer to $3 million. "Even the organization is still trying to figure out where the money went," allows one high-level staffer, explaining the campaign's cash-flow problem. "They tossed a lot of money into Iowa--a lot of money." The Associated Press reported that $8.5 million was spent on staff and consultant salaries in 2003.
In an attempt at reorganization, Dean pulled ads from primary states and, in a widely reported move, asked his staff to defer their salaries for two weeks. What was not widely reported was that at the end of the two week deferment, many staffers were laid off. "What I saw going into the meeting," says one former campaign worker, "was, okay, there's going to be a two-week pay furlough. . . . But essentially it was, 'You guys did a great job and we'd like to offer you some paid work going forward, but we can't do that. If you want to volunteer, go ahead and drive somewhere. If you feel like it.' It pretty much was a layoff."
Which is how it ends now for Howard Dean. Campaigning on anger and confrontation with the establishment, he promises to work cordially with other world leaders. Campaigning on fiscal responsibility, he loses track of his own campaign's finances and reckless spending. Campaigning on job growth, he winds up laying off devoted workers under the cover of a "salary deferment."
Since Dean's implosion began on January 19, the comments on his blog have grown steadily less critical of the man and his campaign. One by one, the supporters who understand reality are peeling away from the Deaniac camp. After Washington and Michigan this weekend, the only people left will be the ones who believe that now, finally, Howard Dean has the nomination in the bag.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.