Why Dean's campaign flopped in Iowa.

Why Dean's campaign flopped in Iowa.

Why Dean's campaign flopped in Iowa.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Jan. 20 2004 3:02 AM

Howard Dean's Very Bad Night

Why his campaign flopped in Iowa.

DES MOINES, Iowa—"Prove it or not," Howard Dean told his supporters at a rally Sunday in Davenport. "Now is the time to see if this works," to see if the unorthodox, Internet-fueled campaign assembled by Dean and his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, translates into votes. "Tomorrow, at 6:30 p.m., you can prove it or not." The answer Iowans gave him was a raspberry: Or not.

I attended a West Des Moines caucus Monday night with Dean's Iowa press secretary, Sarah Leonard, and her feeling about the race was that it would be close, so close perhaps that they wouldn't be able to call it that night. She felt it was a three-way race, between Dean, Kerry, and Gephardt. "Edwards, I just don't think you can build an organization in 48 hours," she said. But it wasn't close. Momentum beat organization, both Dean's digital one and Gephardt's analog one. (Leonard did say before the caucus, however, that the rumor that Dean had a hard count of 50,000 was preposterous. "If we had a hard count of 50,000, I'd probably be at the Val Air," she joked, referring to the ballroom site of Dean's caucus night party.)

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The results from our caucus reflected the results of the 1,992 other caucuses in the state in one respect: Kerry got twice as many delegates as Howard Dean, four to two (with John Edwards picking up four as well). There were lots of new and first-time caucus participants, so many that the organizers ran out of forms to register them. But they weren't the new voters the Dean campaign wanted. George Davey, the precinct captain for the Dean campaign, said he was hoping for 25 to 50 Dean voters between the ages of 18 and 25, but only one showed up. "I think if we could blame [Dean's loss] on anyone, blame it on the 18- to 25-year-olds, because they were nonexistent," he said.

Davey, who is 37, also said Dean needed to be less negative toward his opponents. And another Dean volunteer, Toby Sackton, a 57-year-old from Boston, complained that Dean's television ads weren't any good. "We saw three ads, one by Kerry, one by Edwards, and one by Dean. Dean's was by far the worst," he said. "It was an ad aimed at getting the supporters out," not appealing to voters who didn't already like Dean.

I think there's something to Sackton's complaint. I heard four or five Dean radio ads on my drive to the caucus, all with the same message: Dean had the courage to stand up to President Bush on the war while the other major candidates folded. Dean's saturation TV ads focused on nefarious "corporations" and "special interests" and "Washington insiders," rather than the things I'd seen Dean use on the stump (in addition to his stance on the war) to appeal to voters who hadn't heard of him already: his Vermont record of balanced budgets, health care, and the state's "Success by Six" program for children.

In his final days in Iowa, Dean's campaign was about his campaign. To the extent issues were at stake at all, Dean's message focused on the past—Do you want a candidate who was against the war, as Dean put it in Davenport, "not now, but then"?—while John Kerry focused on a future consideration—Do you want a candidate who will raise your taxes? Beyond the war, Dean hit three notes: What his opponents said and did in 2002 and 2001, the fact that he's raised lots of money in small donations over the Internet, and tiresome bromides about the special interests/corporations/Washington insiders. It's a high-tech version of Al Gore's "people vs. the powerful" campaign. That's not good enough.

Four years ago, George W. Bush rebounded from a surprisingly large defeat in New Hampshire by co-opting his opponent's message and recasting himself as a "reformer with results." Dean might do the same. If he's got a tax cut in his back pocket, it's time to bring it out. And he needs to do a better job of introducing himself and his record to voters who haven't been paying attention to the campaign for six months or a year.

The early signs of that happening aren't auspicious. Rather than reaching out to the unconverted, Dean fired up his base of supporters at the Val Air. He grinned, ripped off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and flung an orange "Perfect Storm" hat into the crowd. Then he started waving an American flag. Walter Shapiro's metaphor of Dean as an "aging rock star reduced to reprising his greatest hits in smaller and smaller clubs" never felt more apt.

At the Hotel Fort Des Moines bar on Saturday night, the New Republic's Ryan Lizza told Dean strategist Steve McMahon that his campaign needed a new message. McMahon shook his head. You and I are in different businesses, he said. The press is bored with our message, but we need to dance with the girl that brung us. I think McMahon's wrong. I think Dean's campaign became much more anti-business and much less moderate than it was six months ago, and it became a campaign about a messianic figure and his movement rather than a blunt, moderate Democrat and his policies. But even if McMahon is right, he must know by now that it's time to find another girl.