Iowa Caucuses Point to Fluid Democrats, But Dean Can’t Be Counted Out

Andrew E. Busch

January 1, 2004

In the aftermath of the surprising Iowa caucus results—Kerry in first, Edwards a strong second, Dean a distant third, and Gephardt languishing in an embarrassing fourth—many important questions arise.

What do the results say about the Democratic race? First and foremost, the Democratic race is still wide open. In a state where the contenders had spent vast quantities of time and money, there was huge movement in the polls in the last 10 days of the race. In other words, after months of intensive campaigning, the Democratic caucus electorate was still up for grabs. No one made the sale until very late, and it is not really clear that even John Kerry made the sale in the end. He just happened to be ahead in a very fluid race when the votes were cast. One can presume that at least this much fluidity exists in New Hampshire, and more in later voting states that have had much less attention from the candidates so far.

Who were the big winners and who were the big losers? There were two big winners, one loser, and one really big loser. The biggest winner was John Kerry, for three reasons. Most obviously, he won; he beat his presumed arch-rival Dean by a 2-1 margin; and he won by coming behind after many pundits had declared his candidacy all but dead. It might seem commonplace to point out that Kerry was the biggest winner, but it actually cannot be assumed that the person with the most votes is the biggest winner. For that to happen, one must win both the votes and the expectations game. Kerry managed to do it. Not everyone does.

The second big winner is John Edwards, whose last-minute surge was fueled by a late endorsement by the Des Moines Register. Like Kerry, Edwards was long assumed to be yesterday’s candidate. Now he is clearly in the top tier.

The biggest loser by far was Richard Gephardt, who only garnered about one in ten votes on Monday after winning Iowa in 1988 and contending for the lead until the last few days before the vote. It was always questionable whether a House member who was driven from the Minority Leader’s position by his party’s failure in the 2002 elections was really a viable candidate. Iowans seemed to have answered that question, and have ended Gephardt’s presidential hopes.

In between, a loser but not fatally wounded, was Dean.

How did Dean and Gephardt lose their seemingly secure positions in Iowa? Dean was hurt by a number of controversial remarks that he made in the last few weeks before the caucuses. He may also have been hurt rather than helped by the high-profile endorsements of Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and Tom Harkin; while these endorsements may have burnished Dean’s credentials with Democratic Party insiders, they may also have sacrificed his valuable image as the scrappy outsider taking on the establishment. And, as the front-runner, he attracted nearly continuous pummeling from the others. Indeed, he and Gephardt may have been so successful at attacking each other that by the end no one wanted to vote for either of them. With Joseph Lieberman and Wesley Clark sitting out Iowa, Kerry and Edwards were the only viable candidates left for voters to move to.

Does Iowa mean that Dean is finished? It is possible that Democratic voters, having thoroughly weighed the idea of Dean—his positions, his temperament, his electability—have now discarded that idea, and he will sink without a trace. It would be unwise, however, to count on that. One is hard pressed to think of a nominee in the last quarter century who did not face a tough early loss. Reagan in Iowa in 1980, Mondale in New Hampshire in 1984, Bush in Iowa in 1988 (when he finished third behind Pat Robertson), Clinton in New Hampshire in 1992, Dole in New Hampshire in 1996, and Bush in New Hampshire in 2000 all lost early but came back to win. Iowa and New Hampshire are not events that determine the nominee; they are events that weed out the field and determine which two or three candidates are really viable. What has predicted the nominee much better in that period, as political scientist William Mayer of Northeastern University has pointed out, has been fundraising and national poll standing at the beginning of the election year. In both of those categories, the leader at the beginning of January was Howard Dean, albeit by a narrower margin that previous years’ front-runners. This means he has reserves of both money and support to draw on to help him through tough times. Whether it will be enough remains to be seen.

Does the shake-up the Democratic race mean an old-fashioned political brawl for the whole primary season? Probably not, for two reasons. First, the dynamics of the modern nominating system push in the direction of a relatively early decision. The primaries are so front-loaded that a race extended past March 9 is unlikely. Second, Democrats want George W. Bush out and are likely to be eager to settle on a candidate once a leader emerges. Democratic voters may want to pull the plug on a competitive (and nasty) race in order to begin looking to November. The Republican prototype in this regard is 1996, when Bob Dole, despite his obvious deficiencies as a candidate, rode to the nomination on the sentiments of Republican primary voters that they wanted to end the bloodletting and were willing to go with the leader in order to stop the fight early.

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