Sunday, September 14, 2003

State of the game, 2004
With less than 20 weeks until the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, it is time to look at the Democratic primaries and reveal a few important things concerning the campaign and the process.

The inspiration for this post comes from a few things: Dan Kennedy’s post on Media Log.
First, Kennedy quoted from a section of the Nichols piece in which the writer states that Kucinich – not Dean – deserves the backing of progressives because he has actually challenged the Bush Administration in the halls of Congress. While Dean claims to be a "[Sen. Paul] Wellstone Democrat," it is Dennis Kucinich who can "claim Wellstone’s progressive populist mantle."
Kennedy's posted reaction: "Well, okay. Of course, this doesn’t answer the question, 'So just how badly do you want to lose, anyway?'"
Well, who is to assume that Kucinich can't win?
Let’s be honest here: Just about any of the Democratic candidates will be able to beat President George W. Bush in November 2004. Why? Well, the nation is divided between moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans – who essentially believe the same thing – with fringe left and fringe right groups on either side. Take a look at the Electoral College map recently released by Larry Sabato: ["Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball"]. Look at the map from the 2000 election ["map"]. East Coast, West Coast, metropolitan blue versus Midwest, Southern, and rural red – the nation is clearly divided.
But look closer.
Almost all of the blue is strong or very strong blue. Barring another major effort by Ralph Nader or a completely incompetent Democratic campaign like the one waged by Vice President Al Gore in 2000, there is a good chance the Democrats can hold their states. All the Democrats need to do is win one of the big Midwestern or Southern states. Kucinich would only need to win Gore’s states and Ohio and he beats Bush. Add a Midwestern or Southern governor to the ticket and Kucinich [or any Dem] is almost unstoppable.
Two other things Kucinich brings to the table the others don't: He is pro-life [although trying to subdue it during the primaries] and he is a vehement anti-free trader, a constituency that has been alienated in the past by Democrats, to Nader's benefit. The pro-life position renders Bush impotent on that issue. Kucinich could bring social conservatives back into the party and could also draw from people who supported Perot and Buchanan on the trade issue – millions of voters that either went to Nader or Bush in 2000. There would also be no Nader candidacy if he won since Nader has endorsed him.
So why take cheap shots challenging his ability to beat Bush?
Going back to Kennedy’s point, there is no guarantee that Dean is a shoo-in against Bush. Sure, it is possible, and Rove, Inc. can't wait to hang the gay marriage thing on the guy. But he really only needs one red state, again, looking at the map. If he wins, Dean should really consider Dick Gephardt – great with the unions and on trade which Dean is spotty on – or a Midwestern or Southern governor or senator to swing one of those red states. Same with Gephardt, if he wins, he should consider Dean to hold the left flank against Nader.

As an aside, both Gephardt and Kerry attacked Dean after his appearance on "This Week" this morning when George Stephanopoulos seemed to touch a nerve on Dean’s backing of NAFTA. From the Gephardt and Kerry press releases this afternoon, let's go to the transcript:

George Stephanopoulos: "You have changed on various issues. On NAFTA, you used to be a strong supporter."

Howard Dean: "George, you’re doing it again. I supported NAFTA and wrote a letter to President Clinton in 1992 supporting NAFTA. That’s different than used to be a strong supporter of."

Stephanopoulos: "You were a strong supporter of NAFTA."

Dean: "I supported NAFTA. Where do you get the 'I’m a strong supporter of NAFTA?' I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t vote on it. I didn’t march down the street supporting it. I wrote a letter supporting it."

Stephanopoulos: "Are you ashamed of that now?"

Dean: "No, I’m not. I tell labor unions why I did it and because it did a lot of positive things for Vermont."

Stephanopoulos: "Now you’re…"

Dean: "What I see you doing is painting me into a corner that I was never in, and that’s what a lot – that in some ways is funny."

Stephanopoulos: "But I don’t get this. You were a supporter of it. You wrote a letter supporting it and talked about it."

Dean: "Right."

Stephanopoulos: "And now you have a different position?"

Dean: "No."

Stephanopoulos: "Why isn’t it right to ask about that and explain what you mean?"

Dean: "It is. It is fine. I have no problem with you asking about it but don’t put me in a position, which most journalists do, including you, of you are a strong supporter of NAFTA and now it’s not true."

[Source: "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," 9/14/03]

Dean: "I was a very strong supporter of NAFTA. I believe it's going to create jobs in the United States of America."

[Source: "This Week with David Brinkley," 1/29/95]

Message to the Dean campaign: It looks like the opposition research on your candidate has been done. I hope there isn’t anything damaging out there.
But back to the point: The Electoral College figures point to victory even if a candidate is only in single digits in national polls this early in the race. Is it going to happen for Kucinich? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. I think the challenge comes from a lack of understanding – or completely ignoring – how the Electoral College works. The primary and final presidential campaigns will be individual contests for each of the 50 states and D.C. Each state is its own battleground, with its own landmines, media and voter mindset. Since both the primary and final campaigns are battlegrounds in multiple states, national polls questioning the voter preference of 400 to 1,000 people are utterly meaningless. Even if they could question 10,000 or 20,000 people in a national final election poll in an attempt to guess how 100 million or more will cast votes, it would be completely useless. However, the media relish these polls; using them every chance they can mostly because it is easy and you don’t have to explain the inner workings of the process. The candidates like them too; much to the chagrin of anyone who understands the Electoral College.
At present, I am receiving media releases from the Dean, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Kucinich, and Joe Lieberman local and national campaigns. I have covered a bunch of their campaign events and written stories for the newspaper. John Edwards’ campaign sent me a couple of press releases but then stopped. Despite contacting them numerous times, the Bob Graham, Sharpton or Braun campaigns have refused to subscribe me, not a good sign for their so-far failing efforts. Dean’s stunning surge into frontrunner status – altogether not that surprising when you consider the fact that he started his campaign so early – has sent the other candidates into a tizzy, blanketing the media with a new national poll every day showing that their candidate is actually on top.
Take Kerry, who knows it is 2004 or never. His campaign has sent out press releases in recent days showing off his national poll stature.
From Sept. 12: "John Kerry takes the lead…again."
"In a FOX News national poll of registered voters released today, John Kerry scored first among Democrats with 17% of the vote. This is the second national poll in a row that shows Kerry taking the lead, building off a successful four state announcement tour last week. (national CNN/Time poll of registered Democrats September 5 showed Kerry taking the lead nationally)."
Big deal – this poll is irrelevant. But it attempts to spin Kerry back as the frontrunner.
However, most polls put Lieberman in front:
Earlier today, ABC/Washington Post had Lieberman with 22 percent, with Dean, Gephardt, and Kerry all tied at 14 percent.
Yesterday, Sept. 13, Lieberman led Dean by mere tenths of a percent, 13.8 percent to 13.4 percent. Kerry had 13.2 percent and Gephardt 9.8 percent.
But go back further: On Aug. 31, CBS News placed Lieberman in the lead with 14 percent and Kerry was tied with Sharpton for fifth place [5 percent].
On Aug. 26, Zogby had Dean in front with 16.6 percent while Kerry was sitting in fourth with 9.2 percent.
On Aug. 2, USA Today/CNN/Gallup had Lieberman with 17 percent and Kerry in fourth again with 12 percent. On June 4, Gallup had Lieberman with 20 percent and Kerry in second with 17 percent.
However, neither Kerry nor Lieberman currently lead in any states. Lieberman was leading in South Carolina, the third primary, but Edwards has vaulted into the lead. Dean has handily taken the lead in New Hampshire and is nipping at Gephardt’s heels in Iowa. And again, the primary campaign is about who wins the first states in an effort to clinch the nomination. So in the scheme of things, these national polls mean nothing.
At the same time, the media seems to be painting the Democratic field as weak.
In most polls, a large number of voters have no preference or are undecided. This is not unusual during party primaries this early in the game. In fact, the current state of the campaign is similar to the 1992 primary campaign, as I have said in other posts ["Contenders scramble: But which Democrat can lead the nation?"]. Most people don’t know about the candidates because the news media doesn’t like to cover political campaigns in a serious way anymore. Look at what is going on in California. Everything is about The Terminator running for governor and not about what he is going to do.
As well, the media hasn’t found their darling yet. So, they will continue to try and encourage other candidates to join the fun, in an attempt to bring out a celebrity candidate. Once found, the media will be all over that candidate and will push its will onto the voters. You will start hearing words like "mandate" and "electable" as the media tries to push its interests on the voters. It has happened before. Look at Jimmy Carter’s campaign in 1976. The conventional wisdom is that Carter just came out of nowhere to win the Democratic nomination but the truth is actually the opposite.
Carter was courted by a number of people who were looking for a moderate Southern governor especially after Democrats saw Nixon’s sweep of the south in 1972. He was limited to one term as governor of Georgia. Carter was also a founding member of the Trilateral Commission, a super-secret group of insiders created by David Rockefeller that bills itself as a think tank that addresses "common challenges and leadership responsibilities of the democratic industrialized areas in the wider world." There were other candidates that year like Ok. Sen. Fred Harris, who was campaigning to nationalize the oil industry and decriminalize marijuana, then-Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown – who wanted to close all nuclear power plants – and a tired Mo Udall, so you could see why the media instantly warmed up to Carter and solidified his nomination.
But another reason the media believes the current Democratic candidates are weak is because the Clintons are constantly sucking up all the air around the campaign, with the speculation of Hillary running and Bubba’s rock star excursions to California to save Gov. Gray Davis’ ass. The former predator-in-chief was also at Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry Saturday attacking Bush, the Supreme Court, and talking about clean energy. Clinton had eight years to do something about our dependency on foreign oil and he didn’t do one lousy thing. He should shut up already. Sen. Clinton, to her credit, has continued to deny she is contemplating a presidential race, even though she has reportedly been meeting with advisors and consultants.
While we are months away from casting votes, things are just starting to get interesting.