The Right Coast

January 26, 2004
Electoral Musings
By Michael Rappaport

Howard Dean has been declining in popularity precipitously. This is an extraordinary development. Initially a relative unknown, Dean then became the frontrunner and seemed to have a lock on the nomination, only to dramatically decline in the polls in the brief period leading up to the Iowa caucuses. Amazing. What accounts for this story? And what does it say about the American political system?

We know why Dean initially became popular. He was willing to sharply criticize the war in Iraq, when the other Democratic candidates had voted for the war and were unwilling to harshly condemn it. Dean thus became popular with the most extreme members of his party and became the clear frontrunner.

Dean’s popularity, however, eventually declined. First, Dean’s message was stolen or copied by the others. Irrespective of their initial positions, they all came to mirror his negative view of the war. With his main advantage eliminated, his disadvantages began to become more prominent. Dean had an aggressive, loose-canon quality to his personality that was neither attractive nor presidential. As the Iowa caucuses approached, two things happened. First, voters began to get a bit more serious. Did they really want to vote for someone who was this extreme? Also, did they really want to vote for someone who seemed incapable of beating Bush? The answer was no. Clearly, there is a difference between an opinion poll and a vote. Further, as the caucuses approached, the more moderate voters began to focus on the election, people who were less supportive of Dean’s extreme stance. Finally, there was Dean’s, now infamous, concession speech after the Iowa caucuses, in which he was seen as being angry, out of control, and not very presidential.

What is one to make of all this? In my view, it suggests some real benefits to our much maligned primary process. The process allows unknowns like Dean to have a chance at the nomination, but they must prove themselves in a long, drawn-out marathon. Lately, Dean has fallen behind in the marathon. He has not been able to attract the moderates and his Iowa speech suggested a lack of presidential character. Dean’s troubles thus arguably represent the primary process preventing an extreme and possibly out of control candidate from securing the nomination.