Game Over

Andrew E. Busch

February 1, 2004

With John Kerry’s decisive victories in Tennessee and Virginia, the Democratic race is all but over. Wesley Clark is demolished, and John Edwards could not (or did not choose to) compete even in the South. Howard Dean is left to fight in Wisconsin and perhaps beyond, but can no longer pose a serious threat to Kerry’s nomination unless Kerry himself makes a drastic misstep.

The inability of Clark to put up a strong fight in the South is not as surprising as many have made it out to be, given his long-demonstrated lack of campaign savvy and his choice to position himself on the left wing of the Democratic Party on issues ranging from Iraq to abortion to gay rights. Edwards’ collapse in the South is a bit more surprising; only one week ago, he was savoring a big win in South Carolina and a near-win in Oklahoma. Three things did him in.

First, his near-win in Oklahoma—instead of an actual win—meant that he could not lay claim to the mantle of the sole alternative to Kerry, a position he needed to secure with all speed. This failure is further traceable to his inability to gain second position in New Hampshire despite his impressive showing in Iowa.

Second, Edwards clearly made a conscious decision to concede Tuesday’s races rather than run the sort of tough, negative campaign necessary to seriously threaten Kerry. To win, he needed to make the case that Kerry was too liberal for the South, and possibly for the nation as a whole—not a terribly difficult case to make for someone inclined to make it. He steadfastly refused to do so. This means, as others have pointed out, that he is already angling for the Vice Presidential nomination. The problem, of course, is that by playing nice, Edwards lost in places he could have won, significantly diminishing his stock as a running mate who could deliver something that Kerry could not win on his own.

Finally, one has to look outside the specifics of this race to understand why Kerry won in places like Tennessee and Virginia, and why he was able (it seems) to wrap up the Democratic nomination in a mere three weeks since Iowa. The heavily front-loaded nature of the presidential primary calendar has often worked to the clear benefit of the front-runner. But there was always another possibility latent in the system: That another candidate might sneak up on the front-runner (who, in early January, was Dean), knock him from his perch, and ride the subsequent momentum all the way to the nomination. In 1984, Gary Hart’s post-New Hampshire momentum—the period during which he benefited from a massive dose of almost-entirely positive free media and public fascination—lasted about three weeks. When it ended, and Democrats took a second and closer look at Hart, Walter Mondale surged back. Today, with the primaries so stacked at the beginning, a three-week shot of momentum is apparently enough to catapult one to victory.

While this is very good for John Kerry, it remains to be seen whether it is good for Democrats, who have settled on him even though they have hardly begun to hear the case against him. The incoherent somersaults on Iraq, the 93 percent ADA rating, the lunches with lobbyists, the hurling of (someone else’s) medals to the ground, the pictures with Hanoi Jane, the votes against CIA funding and against the death penalty for terrorists—none have penetrated the more-or-less constant din since Iowa. There may be a serious case of buyer’s regret looming on the horizon for Democrats. If so, they will have Howard Dean’s rage, John Edwards’ opportunism, and primary front-loading to thank for it.

Andrew E. Busch is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.