MT. PLEASANT, IOWA–There are plenty of reasons why Howard Dean sank in Iowa, going from first in the polls about a week ago to a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses Monday night. Democrats’ nervousness about Dean’s gaffes, Kerry’s last-minute surge, and the Des Moines Register’s endorsement of Edwards all played a part. It also didn’t help that the early support for Dean in the polls reflected a lot of empty hype generated by Dean himself.
One of Howard Dean’s selling points is that his campaign attracts a lot of people who do not participate in politics. Indeed, this is crucial to Dean’s general-election strategy. “We’re not gonna beat George Bush by being Bush-lite,” Dean proclaims. “The way to beat George Bush is to give the 50 percent of Americans who quit voting because they can’t tell the difference between the Democratic party and the Republican party, give them a reason to vote again. And that’s how we’re gonna beat George Bush. We’re gonna go out and bring new people to this process.” Dean claims that the campaign is already attracting these new people in droves: “A quarter of all the people who donate money to our campaign are under 30 years old.”
Yet some of the evidence behind this claim is shaky. After the discovery two weeks ago of Dean’s four-year-old comments criticizing the Iowa caucuses, he released a damage-control statement. Dean explained, “Just the other day, I was in Muscatine where nearly 50 percent of those gathered either had never been to a caucus before or were not even registered to vote; but they were there because they believed we can change things,” referring to a January 7 pancake breakfast at an American Legion post in eastern Iowa. While there were a few people under 30 in attendance, the room was dominated with folks over age 50–i.e., those from the age demographic with the highest rates of voter participation, not to mention high rates of Iowa-caucus participation. Union members, the bulk of Democratic-caucus participants, were also well represented, including members of the UAW, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Plumbers and Pipefitters.
Even if nearly 50 percent of those in attendance had never voted in nor attended a caucus, it’s not clear how Dean would know that. He didn’t spend much time talking to people one-on-one. Nor did I see his campaign staff taking a survey of the crowd to determine their recent voting habits. A call to Dean’s Iowa press office yielded no answer; a spokeswoman did not know how the Dean campaign arrived at the 50-percent figure. I asked her to call me back with an answer, but she never did. I followed up with two phone messages, which were also not returned. Perhaps it all depends on what the definition of “nearly 50 percent” is.
Nor is it entirely clear whether the “new people” Dean is attracting to his campaign are actually new to voting or just new to campaigning. The Dean campaign spent the night before the American Legion speech in Des Moines at the upscale home of Ned Chiodo, a former Democratic state representative and now a lobbyist with clients like Aventis, McDonald’s, and Wells Fargo. After Dean’s speech, I encountered two Dean volunteers: Jeff, a local attorney, and Steve, a child psychiatrist from Los Angeles. Jeff said that his wife initially brought him to the Dean campaign. “It was late February or early March when I first met Dean. I was very impressed. He’s got real answers, and he’s a pragmatist.” As an example, he mentions the issues of gun control and, interestingly enough, stock options: “Dean understands that stock options are important to start up companies, but that some reform is needed, that companies need to expense the options.”
Steve seemed even more enamored of Dean. “It was his position on the war that first brought me in,” said Steve, as Jeff nodded in agreement. “Dean is empowering the grassroots,” Steve continued. “He’s restored my faith that my voice means something. Before Dean, I felt powerless.” Jeff concurs: “Before Dean I just spent a lot of time screaming at the TV.” When pressed on whether they had campaigned before, they said that they had not, but that they had voted.
I couldn’t help but think that these two were trying to reclaim their missed college-activism days. There was no war going on when they were in school, so there was nothing worth getting involved over. Now that there is one, they’re hoping to recover some lost glory.
Indeed, it seems to be the upper-middle-class lefties, who had nothing to get worked up about in the 1990s, that Dean is attracting–not a big swath of America that has never voted before. If so, Dean is misreading the support for his campaign. Or perhaps the candidate is just blowing smoke.