NYT: Primary 101: The Old Text

The great tragedy of science,” the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley lamented, is “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” By that standard, political science is going through a homely phase. It’s not even three weeks since the Iowa caucuses, and voters have wiped out several decades’ worth of conventional wisdom about presidential primaries.

The winner of the “invisible primary” will get the nomination. The great lesson from history, experts kept saying last fall, is that the candidate who raises the most money the year before the election and leads in the polls at year’s end is bound to get the nomination. Ergo, Howard Dean was a sure thing.

Organization is everything in Iowa. Ignore the polls and don’t count on television advertising in Iowa, the experts said, because those quirky caucuses are won by the candidate with the best ground game. Hence those legions of workers going door to door for Dr. Dean and Representative Richard A. Gephardt were sure to overwhelm the competition.

New Hampshire voters are fiercely independent thinkers who pay no attention to the results from Iowa. Except this year, when those voters chose Senator John Kerry precisely because his Iowa victory made him look “electable.”

Labor support is crucial in a Democratic primary. A month ago, the pros debated which “prized endorsement” mattered more, the industrial unions’ for Mr. Gephardt or the public employees’ for Dr. Dean. Apparently neither.

Capitol Hill is not the way to the White House. Historically, voters in presidential elections have tended to prefer governors and generals over senators and representatives. The former governor of Texas may prove that rule true once again in November, but so far this year most primary voters prefer senators.

A contested primary race weakens the nominee against an incumbent. Maybe it will, but not so far. A month ago the Democrats despaired of anyone beating Mr. Bush. Now polls show Mr. Kerry ahead of him. With a little extrapolation, you could produce a graph showing that a few more primary fights will guarantee a Democratic landslide in November. But it might be premature to declare that a law of politics.

Heh. Of course, lots of sitting congressmen get nominated. It’s getting elected that has been the hurdle.

The Internet may be transforming politics, but couch potatoes still rule. Journalists were so busy covering Dr. Dean’s meetups and other Internet innovations that they paid little attention to what was probably a more important factor in the early primaries: Mr. Kerry and John Edwards had better advertisements on old-fashioned television.

Do not invoke Janis Joplin, or at least not her version of “Me and Bobby McGee,” to a candidate about to deliver the most important speech of his life. Just before Dr. Dean’s concession speech in Iowa, Joe Trippi, his soon-to-be-ex-campaign manager, offered some advice from the song: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Which, of course, it isn’t.

You can succeed without a wife gazing at you adoringly. Dr. Dean was doing better before his wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean, joined the campaign.

Now, that’s just unfair! Indeed, the reason Dean started trotting out his wife was that his campaign was already in the tank.

If Al Gore offers to endorse you, don’t answer right away. Maybe it’s unfair to compare Mr. Gore to the dementor characters in Harry Potter fiction, robed figures whose kiss will suck the soul out of a victim. Maybe it was just a coincidence that the Dean campaign collapsed right after Mr. Gore’s endorsement. Still, if he does call, tell him you need to sleep on it.

Bob Dole already said this on Letterman. But it’s so true.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    Naw- This election was the exception that proves the rule.

    Dean was a nutburger and that changed everything.