Why high turnout could be bad for Howard Dean.

Why high turnout could be bad for Howard Dean.

Why high turnout could be bad for Howard Dean.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Jan. 19 2004 3:46 AM

The Iowa Primary?

If too many voters turn out, Dean and Gephardt are in trouble.

DES MOINES, IOWA—So, who's going to win? Believe it or not, the question hinges on whether Iowa Democrats are holding a caucus or a primary on Monday night. Yes, I know that New Hampshire, not Iowa, is supposed to hold the nation's first primary (at least the first primary that counts), while Iowa conducts the first-in-the-nation caucuses. But lock Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi and Gephardt campaign manager Steve Murphy in a room and ask them what they're worried about, and it's whether Iowa's caucuses are going to unexpectedly turn into a primary.

That's what Trippi was saying late Saturday night outside the bar at the Hotel Fort Des Moines. What did he mean? If Iowans vote in numbers that would be unsurprising for the Iowa caucuses—say, 120,000 or 130,000 voters—then Trippi is confident that the Dean campaign will win. Caucuses are time-consuming, they take place at a specific time instead of throughout the day (and you can't vote early or use an absentee ballot), and they're more intimidating for new voters than going behind a curtain and casting a ballot. As a result, they have a lower participation rate than primaries do. But if Iowans shock everyone this year and turn out at a level that's closer to the participation rate of a primary than a caucus (say, 180,000 voters?), it's a good sign for the campaigns of John Kerry and John Edwards.

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That contradicts the judgment of many observers that the Dean campaign is banking on a high turnout. I saw Mort Kondracke say on Fox News that the Dean campaign is hoping for a turnout of 160,000. But that's not what Trippi said Saturday night (well, it was after 2 a.m., so maybe it was Sunday morning).

Dick Gephardt's Iowa campaign manager, John Lapp, sounded just like Trippi on Sunday after Gephardt's evening rally at the Renaissance Savery Hotel. If there's a "primary-type turnout" of 180,000 people, Lapp said, one of the "momentum guys"— Edwards or Kerry—will win. But if there's a turnout in a more expected range, such as 115,000 or 120,000, the Gephardt people think they have a shot.

The universe of expected caucus voters is so small that campaigns can tally up their "hard count," a list of the voters that they are certain will caucus for them. Once you know your hard count, you can make a rough calculation of the maximum number of voters that the other campaigns can turn out without beating you. And although campaigns won't disclose their hard-count number to prying reporters, Lapp said that John Norris, Kerry's Iowa campaign manager, said that 36,000 votes would be enough to win the caucuses. On Meet the Press, Gephardt said 35,000 to 40,000 votes would win.

There's a rumor (cited in the Boston Globe) that Dean has a hard count of 50,000, but Lapp doesn't believe it. Nor does Shari Fitzgerald, one of Gephardt's two Iowa campaign chairs. "If they turn out 50,000, they deserve to win," she said. "But they're not going to." (Fitzgerald also said that the assertion by Dean's Iowa field director, Tim Connolly, that 65 percent of Dean's solid supporters are new caucus-goers was "ridiculous.") And I heard a different but pretty reliable rumor that Dean's hard count isn't nearly as high as people think.

Trippi told a cautionary tale about hard counts from the 1980 caucuses, which he said had a higher turnout than 1988, the year that is usually cited for peak participation. That year, Trippi was working for the Kennedy campaign and was told to get a hard count of 1,000 voters in a certain area. Unbeknownst to Trippi, more than 600 voters had never participated in the caucuses in that area before. But Trippi busted his hump, found 1,200 names for Kennedy, and he was certain his man was going to win. Then the Carter people rolled in with 1,600 voters.

The Dean campaign is hoping to supplement its hard count by sending its 3,500 out-of-state volunteers into precincts Monday and asking them to find five additional votes for Howard Dean. Trippi said they're going to look for votes on the street, at the grocery store, at Starbucks, wherever. The "Perfect Storm" volunteers probably won't find five votes apiece, but Trippi said that "Fritz's Blitzers," the 1,000 out-of-state volunteers for Walter Mondale in 1984, managed to pull in about 2½ additional votes each for Mondale. If that ratio holds up, that's nearly 9,000 extra votes for Dean.

First-time caucus-goers like those are central to Dean's strategy for victory, and the hopes of the Dean campaign rest on a tremendous number of new voters turning out for the caucuses. Just not too many of them.