Howard Dean received the political kiss of death in Michigan last Sunday: Al Gore visited Detroit to campaign on his behalf. Since then, Dean has done nothing but slide in the state his campaign recently declared would serve as a firewall following disasters in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Granted, John Kerry had built a healthy lead in the polls before Gore’s reverse-Midas touch infected Dean. Anticipating a Kerry victory in Saturday’s Democratic caucuses seems about as safe as predicting that most of the hockey fans at Joe Louis Arena will cheer for the Red Wings.
The Massachusetts senator’s advantage has held steady all week. The latest tracking-poll numbers, according to the Detroit News, give Kerry 52 percent of the vote. Dean is a very distant second with 9 percent (down from 13 percent on Monday), followed by Edwards with 8 percent (up from 6 percent). Wesley Clark and Dennis Kucinich are dueling for fourth and fifth place. About one out of five voters say they’re undecided.
If these figures stick, they will represent Kerry’s biggest win anywhere so far. On Tuesday, he took 51 percent of the vote in the Missouri and North Dakota primaries and 50 percent in Delaware. Michigan has 128 delegates up for grabs–more than any state before now and 6 percent of what’s needed to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination.
A week ago, Dean sounded upbeat in East Lansing. “For anyone who thinks they can come here in the last three days and suddenly win in Michigan, I think they’re wrong,” he said. “We’re going to be strong here.” Three days ago, however, Dean sounded ready to write off the Wolverine State: “We don’t have a shot at winning,” he confessed on MSNBC. He hasn’t been so glum in other interviews and he did spend Thursday in Michigan. That’s more than Edwards and Clark: They’re skipping the state entirely.
Despite Kerry’s big lead, three factors may boost his rivals. The first is that Michigan voters seem to enjoy humbling frontrunners. Four years ago, John McCain carried the GOP primary despite Gov. John Engler and the rest of the state’s Republican establishment backing George W. Bush. In 1988, Jesse Jackson topped Michael Dukakis in the Democratic contest. In 1980, the state went for George H.W. Bush on the very day Ronald Reagan secured the GOP nomination. George Wallace was the Democratic winner in 1972.
This is an intriguing history, though any candidate who banks on it probably runs a website listing “delirious optimism” as one of his “core principles.”
Speaking of websites, the next potential factor is the Internet. Some 30,000 Democrats already have cast ballots in early online voting and it’s possible many of them did it before they had a chance to sour on Dean. The Dean campaign has made much of the fact that its volunteers canvassed neighborhoods with laptop computers. This is exactly the sort of hyped-up story that gets more media attention than it really deserves. We’ll see.
The final factor is a pair of acronyms: NAFTA and CAFE. The North American Free Trade Agreement is deeply unpopular among Michigan’s numerous union members. Kerry voted for it in the Senate and Dean supported it as governor of Vermont. Edwards, however, has been a critic of the ten-year-old trade deal. (He wasn’t in Congress when it was approved.) Kerry is also a strong supporter of raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which could hurt American auto-industry jobs that rely so heavily on gas-guzzling pick-ups and SUVs. If Edwards can somehow differentiate himself from the competition on NAFTA and CAFE, grab most of Dean’s dwindling support, and cut deeply into Kerry’s numbers–perhaps he’ll upset the frontrunner in a surprising photo finish.
And then, in eight short months, maybe the Detroit Tigers will find themselves heading for the World Series. They did sign Ivan Rodriguez this week!
Fans of the Tigers (like me) can dream on until the regular season begins in April. For Democrats in Michigan, the season of wishful thinking comes to an end on Saturday at 4 P.M., when the caucuses close and Kerry, in all likelihood, takes another big step toward the Democratic nomination.