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The trippy scenario

I attended a lunch back in July, or maybe even August, at which Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, sketched out the months to come. By the end of September, he predicted, Dean would have 150,000 names on the internet, some huge amount of money, and solid leads in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. At that point, he predicted, the Democratic establishment, such as it is, might coalesce behind some alternative candidate, but it would be too late. By December, he predicted, the other candidates would have no choice but to drop out and get behind Dean or risk a "donnybrook" that would hurt the party.

At the time, I thought this was nuts. In an e-mail to the friend who invited me to the lunch, I called it the "trippy" lunch because it seemed so delusional. After all, at the time, Dean's only real acccomplishment was to have almost knocked down the balsa-wood simulacrum of a presidential candidate that is John Kerry. And I don't think there's anything necessarily destructive about having some healthy primary elections, in which people actually get to cast some votes. There's a lot of room between having a few real votes and the kind of "donnybrook" that hurts the Democratic nominee, the last of which was Kennedy vs. Carter in 1980. It's a little offensive to my democratic instincts to choose the nominee based on polls and meet-ups. I came away far warier of Dean, but mostly because I thought this hyper-confidence would be self-destructive.

But here we are in December, and I must have been wrong: all the major pieces of Trippi's trippy scenario are falling into place. There will, without a doubt, soon be just one candidate remaining as an alternative to Dean, and, in keeping with my earlier predictions, I still think that candidate will be Clark. (My scenario, in which Kerry's free-fall opens up second place in New Hampshire for Clark, first put forward five weeks ago , is now almost the conventional wisdom.) But the Clark challenge could fade as well. He'll need more than "electability" to make his case, because he'll have to regain some of the real intense enthusiasm that characterized his earliest supporters, and electability alone can't produce that energy. Also, the logic of a Dean-Clark or maybe a Clark-Dean ticket is so strong that both may really pull their punches in order to avoid the ugly quotes that come back at them in the general election.

The Gore endorsement doesn't end things, I don't think, but it certainly helps. I assume Gore can be very helpful to Dean in Iowa, and probably can help move him into the race in South Carolina (the one state where he's currently invisible), and strengthen his credibility with African-American voters. But what really got me thinking about learning to live with Dean was the article in the Times magazine this weekend about Dean's fanatical supporters. Even if Dean can be defeated for the nomination by the right combination of candidate and events, there is going to be a large group of people who will feel he was robbed. I remember the 1992 convention, with Jerry Brown's crew of young supporters and delegates, a tiny subset of the Dean following, completely convinced that their man had had the nomination stolen from him, even though he hadn't won anything. It was actually an ugly and disruptive scene. Now multiply it by 1,000. The people who dropped out of grad school or left their families or started their own blogs or whatever for Howard Dean are not going to quietly accept that he lost the nomination, if he loses the nomination. (In other words, the threat of a "donnybrook" is actually a dagger that Dean is holding over the party.)

As for electability, which is the only thing that matters to me, I look at it as a simple matter of arithmetic: We've got a president who once had an approval rating in the 70s (excluding the 91% on Sept. 12, 2001, when all of us desperately wanted to believe Bush was competent) but who's now hovering between the high 40s and the mid-50s. Twenty percent of voters now say they are "willing to consider" voting for someone else. That means that a sizable population, somewhere between 20 and 30 percent, are people who once liked George Bush but are now either disappointed or rethinking the matter. Dean is a perfect candidate for the 30% who never liked Bush, which includes almost everyone I know and certainly Al Gore! Clark, I've argued, is a good candidate for those who used to like him but no longer do, which is why I have no problem with the fact that he once said optimistic things about the Bush foreign policy team. He is himself one of the disappointed, and that's why he speaks to them. The combination could be perfect. So the question for Dean is whether he can reach the disappointed as successfully as he reached the never-liked-hims.

Part of Dean's argument is that he will bring new people into the process, whether people who never voted before or had never been reached out to by a straight-talking Democrat. I agree with that ambition, very much so. It's an important change from the Democratic party of the Clinton-Gore era, when the assumption was very much that the electorate is what it is, that winning a vote away from the other guy is worth twice as much as bringing in a new voter, and the only hope is to concentrate every effort on that small group of swing voters near the fiftieth percentile. But there are plenty of disappointeds among the non-voters, too. If the Democratic nominee cannot reach the huge number of Americans who at one time liked Bush, there is no way to make up for that with new voters.

And that's what keeps me awake at night. On the other hand, if Dean's going to be the nominee eventually, the sooner he can get started on figuring out how to reach this very different group of voters and non-voters, the better. And I have to admit, the very audacity of the trippy scenario might be just what we need, to confront a political machine whose greatest asset is its own audacity and willingness to make its own rules.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 10, 2003 | Permalink

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Comments

"That means that a sizable population, somewhere between 20 and 30 percent, are people who once liked George Bush but are now either disappointed or rethinking the matter."

I'd like to hear more about what Dean should do to try to appeal to these folks.

Just thinking out loud here: My sense is that if it weren't for his strong label in the popular media as the "anti-war" candidate there wouldn't be a natural reason to view him as left of the mainstream given his history as centrist and fiscal conservative.

Is there a way for him to shake off that label --that actually is somewhat inappropriate--?
Assuming he wins the nomination is it just a matter of reassuring the public that he's not a pacifist?

Should this be done through symbolic moves, exhibiting his toughness or through policy?

Posted by: lerxst | Dec 10, 2003 1:15:38 PM

...or maybe by picking Clark?

Posted by: lerxst | Dec 10, 2003 1:16:23 PM

This business of wanting to get at the 20-30% of voters who changed their minds on Bush in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 is plumb silly. Those voters were never "real" Bush voters, and with the election then years away everyone sensible on the right and left knew it.

That % represents primarily hawkish Democrats or Dem-leaners (in my opinion, I've got diddly-squat in the way of data to back me up) who would not ever vote for a Bush if there was a strong-defense Dem alternative.

In an era where 54% of the vote is often considered a landslide and 57% is considered earthshaking, for a Dem or Rep candiate to battle themselves to 45% of the vote is not really the sort of thing that should excite anyone.

Posted by: Jim Roberts-Miller | Dec 19, 2003 8:36:31 AM

I've noticed that Dean-supporter psychology you allude to on some of the political blogs I read. There is, among some Dean supporters, the sense that they & their guy are pure & their positions the only rational ones, where as everyone else is corrupt to varying degrees. I'm old enought to have felt this way myself about Gene McCarthy & George McGovern back in the day, but I no longer have that sense of certainty--it has been worn away by my desire to do whatever is necessary to reverse the slide toward a return of the Gilded Age we are now experiencing.

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