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Two Interesting Quotes About Dean

I want to comment very briefly on two provocative quotes from yesterday's Washington Post story, As Pre-Primary Season Closes, Questions Cling to Dean's Gains (washingtonpost.com)

First,

"Our primary voters are dialed into electability like I've never seen before, and it is the argument against Dean," said a strategist working for another candidate. "But what the other candidates lack is a piece of evidence they can lay on the table to say, this is why I get the electability card over Dean. If somebody could come up with that, that could make a big difference in this race."

This is a very important point. I suspect that Dean can't win the election, but it will be hard to prove. And as he becomes better known, his national numbers are likely to move up, while his rivals like Clark, because they are still obscure, are likely to do no better in head-to-head matchups. And yet, that doesn't show that Dean is electable, or that he's not electable. Was Dukakis electable when he had a 13-point lead over George H.W. Bush? On the other hand, there was plenty of evidence that suggested Al Gore was unlectable in 2000 -- he never beat Bush in early polls, despite being better known -- and yet, he won the popular vote by a sizable margin.

It also affirms the point that, while Clark has found some focus for his campaign by talking about electability, it is far from sufficient as the basis for a campaign.

The other fascinating quote is from a political strategist I've worked with, both in the Senate and on the Bradley campaign, and respect a great deal, Anita Dunn:

"Dean faces one significant challenge, to go to the next level of his candidacy," said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist who was a senior adviser in Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign. "He has not yet achieved the level of admission to what I call that small circle of people in the United States that voters perceive as qualified to be president. That is an enormous hurdle. . . . He has, at every stage of his campaign, when he has faced a hurdle, found a way to move to that next level, but they get steeper."

That makes sense to me, but it's probably infuriating to the Dean camp. First, because the person making the statement is not easily dismissed as a hostile member of the Clinton establishment. But second, who decides when or how you've been admitted to that circle? Just out of curiosity, who right now might be said to be in that circle of people voters perceive as qualified to be president?

Gore, certainly. All he did was receive more votes than any candidate for President except Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Lieberman, probably, just by virtue of having been on a national ticket.

Gephardt, probably. He's run before, he's a national figure.

Kerry? Who knows. I don't need to bash the poor guy again.

Clark? Probably not yet, but I think he has a strong case for admission to the circle.

Hilary Clinton? Absolutely. You live in the White House for eight years, you're qualified. You have the same last name as a president, you're qualified. (See Bush, George W.)

It's also interesting to think about who might have lost the presidency because they never gained admission to the circle of the perceived-as-qualified. Dukakis? Probably. But Mondale was certainly perceived as qualified, and he lost just as badly.

And it's not at all clear how one gains admission to that circle, in a single cycle. How did Clinton do it? Was it his own doing, or the embrace of the Washington establishment?

Just like "electablity," I think this is a purely subjective judgment, one that may seem obvious after the fact, but is hard to prove right now. But subjective judgments are sometimes all we've got.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 29, 2003 | Permalink

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Comments

It's interesting to me that people ignore hard evidence that Dean could beat GWB in the general (i.e. lots of money, lots of volunteers, campaign offices in more states, great record in the primary election so far, good endorsements, gun rights policy position that could move WV or AR into play, decline of the Green party in general election, etc.) for hard to touch, intangible, subjective judgements (i.e. electability, optimism, 'inner circle of Presidential potenitals').

I mean, I like inside baseball as much as the other guy, but even Fox NFL pre-game only lists 'intangibles' as one of its 5 categories.

Kilroy Was Here

Posted by: Kilroy Was Here | Dec 29, 2003 11:14:40 AM

Part of the problem in choosing a presidential candidate 9 months ahead of the general election, is that it is not precisely clear what the incumbent's largest weaknesses will be, and therefore what candidates will match up best in November.

For example, if we continue to lose several soldiers every day or if there is another terrorist attack then Bush is weakest on the War on Terrorism and a Dean or Clark who opposed the war is strongest. However if Iraq is going well then Dean's strongest point becomes his weakest and he becomes the unelectable candidate many are portraying him as.

On the "inner circle" issue, was Carter part of that circle in 1976? That is who Dean has patterned his campaign after.

Posted by: Stuart | Dec 29, 2003 12:49:57 PM

Predicting electability is entirely subjective, but journalists and political pros have to do it as parts of their job. They attempt to disguise it in the form of argument. But political pros in my opinion are much better at it, largely because they don't have to go on record nearly as much.

People who have worked in elections in various parts of the country have experience that hometown-bound party activists have never had. They personally know a much wider range of voters. This misunderstanding is a frequent source of the vitriol coming from Dean supporters toward "evil" consultants who think Dean is less electable than others. But I tend to agree with this assesment, though I think a Dean win isn't impossible. (I'm in no mood to gamble.)

It's very hard for most non-political pros to think outside of the bubbles they live and work in. Hope and subjective emotional appeal is not stronger than experience - the experience that comes from in the course of your job having to take a hard look at what specific factors in elections cause certain sets of voters to have certain reactions, emotional or otherwise.

It's like showbiz. Some people can predict hits, some by gut, some by experience, and a combo of both. But many others can't except in the most obvious of examples.

Posted by: SanityManagement | Dec 29, 2003 1:22:29 PM

"I suspect that Dean can't win the election."

Why?

Posted by: susan | Dec 29, 2003 2:05:09 PM

Sanity Management -

Predicting electability is entirely subjective, but journalists and political pros have to do it as parts of their job.

Why is predicting electability entirely subjective?

My favorite analogy in all of this is predicting winners in sporting events. While there is certainly some subjective judgements that must be made, the overwhelmingly more important elements that are used in predicting a winner are hard statistics.

My OBP, Total Bases Per Bat, and HR of the political struggle are funds raised, endorsements, and volunteers. Dean's clearly doing a better job in all three areas than any of his competitors. Wouldn't this be a better indicator of 'electability' than these subjective measures?

Where's the Bill James of Elections when you need him?

Kilroy Was Here

Kilroy Was Here

Posted by: Kilroy Was Here | Dec 29, 2003 7:31:43 PM

Purely subjective judgments may be all you've got sometimes, but it's far from clear this is one of those times. Or in any case, it's far from clear that all we've got are subjective judgments about electability. Why not just talk about the election? As for Anita Dunn's comments, they are not really about voters at all. As far as anyone can tell, more Democratic voters at least think that Dean belongs in that circle more than any of the other nominees do. What she is really talking about is whether a small group of people, composed of some members of the media, political strategists like herself, politicians and some other people who work for them, thinks Dean belongs there. But that is precisely to beg the huge question that Dean's candidacy has raised. One other comment: Clark won't do well in head-to-head match-ups because he's obscure? My impression was that he actually has quite high name recognition, which is what helped him gain such immediate high numbers when he entered the race, only to lose them for other reasons.

Posted by: Jeff L. | Dec 30, 2003 12:03:15 AM

Dukakis was up. Clinton was down by 20 in 1992. So who the heck knows. If the economy starts generating jobs and Iraq settles down, no Dem is electable.

In the short term, Clark has started a new ad campaign in New Hampshire. You can watch the tracking poll for movement.

Posted by: Jayhawker | Dec 30, 2003 1:07:41 PM

First off Kilroy, Dean does not have a "great record in the primary election so far". Nobody does. All anyone has so far is best stated to be "no record". Well, unless you are speaking about the 2000 primary.

To those who ask why many speak of Dean's unelectability, consider... beyond the 'anti-Bush' rhetoric - which seems to daily come off as a speak-first-and-retract-later style - what has Dean coherantly spoken about? Relative to the other front-runners? It amounts to almost nothing of substance.

Count on it. This is where the election will be won or lost come Fall 2004. Sure, railing fro the hip against the current party in office wins you a landslide in the Spring, but the reality hits after Labor Day. (BTW, if Gore is so electable, why couldn't he manage to actually BE elected - by even a few percentage points - after being VP for 8 years? Hell, even GH Bush managed that!)

Finally, let's look at Dean the man. His temperment. His appeal to the common person. To those south of the Mason-Dixon line. Let's look at his straightforwardness on various things he either said or had happen under his time a governor... things he quite easily seems to castize GWB about. Yep, the man has credability. Travels well too. NOT!

Posted by: Dave | Dec 30, 2003 9:02:11 PM

Dave -

Hey, thanks for the insight. You're right, I should have qualified my description of Dean's performance as 'Dean has done well in the pre-primary season so far', as opposed to the primary season.

However, I think my point still stands. As compared to other Democrats, Dean seems to be doing better at the fundamentals than they are.

To me, the fundamentals of any political campaign include fundraising, volunteers, outreach, and endorsements. I don't think that any of the other Democrats can touch Dean in these areas.

Similarly, since Dean has done well in these areas, his poll numbers have climbed dramatically from single digit Kucinich-land all the way to 'frontrunner' land while everyone else's poll numbers have fallen or remained the same.

Though I like Dean, my main point here is not that Dean can beat Bush. My main point here is that there are some less subjective ways to measure the performance of a campaign than just pundit quotes on 'electability' and 'inner circle' stuff.

Kilroy Was Here

Posted by: Kilroy Was Here | Dec 30, 2003 10:27:58 PM

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