The media herd effect is a wonderful sight to behold. For weeks now, virtually everyone with a column or a regular television talking head gig has treated the nomination of Howard Dean as the Democrat’s presidential nominee as a foregone conclusion. Now, with just one poll–with a large margin of error–in a state with a caucus rather than a primary, everyone is now sounding his death knell.

WaPo trumps the “surge” of Kerry and others in a straight news piece. An accompanying “analysis” piece entitled “Democrats Wrestle With ‘Electability’,” essentially asserts that the Democrats are doomed if they nominate Dean:

As his supporters roared approval, Howard Dean told Democrats to look past next week’s Iowa caucuses and think about November: “We are the only campaign that has a chance of beating George Bush.”

So contends the candidate who rival Democrats say has the smallest chance among the major contenders of defeating President Bush if he wins the party’s nomination.

The issue of Dean’s electability, which loomed in the background for months as the former Vermont governor surged to the lead of the Democratic contest, is at the forefront now, days before voting finally begins and with Dean’s once-solid grip on the lead loosened here and in New Hampshire.

The question haunting Dean, raised in various ways by all his main rivals in recent days, is whether he stands any chance of exerting appeal beyond core Democrats who share his strong opposition to the Iraq war and his liberal social views, and who raise their fists in agreement with his biting attacks on Bush.

The answers offered by the competing campaigns reveal two starkly different notions of how Democrats win, both in the popular vote and in a small roster of states on which any close election is likely to hinge — states in which rival campaigns warn that Dean’s style and background may make him radioactive this fall. More than specific issue contrasts, Democratic voters in caucuses and primaries are asked to choose between two visions of how to resolve the perennial tension between principle and pragmatism in nominating contests.

Dean is vowing that he would defeat Bush by energizing his party and drawing new voters with a bolder, brasher and less defensive alternative than Democrats have offered in recent years, including when Bill Clinton was president. Speaking here the other day, Dean expressly rejected the constant focus on moderate swing voters that was Clinton’s hallmark.

“Our strategy is not to go to swing voters first and hope everybody else will come along,” Dean explained to his audience. Of young people and other nonvoters, he said, “The reason they don’t vote is because they can’t tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans, and we’re going to show them that there really is a difference.”

Such an approach, many Democratic strategists believe, could represent a historic miscalculation if Dean retains his precarious lead and carries the Democratic banner. All of Dean’s major competitors are arguing that they are better positioned to pivot from a nominating contest to a battle with Bush for moderate voters in critical states.

Howard Fineman is smart enough not to make predictions, except to say that Dean is far from wrapping it up:

When I interviewed Howard Dean two weeks ago, I asked him, in effect, how he was holding up. He said fine, that he was a little tired–he sounded it–but that it would all be over soon. The race, that is.

I don’t think so. Dean has been running, with impressive intensity, for two years. But he has miles to go before he sleeps–and so does everyone chasing him.

Any hopes that he and other Democrats had for a quick, decisive end to the presidential nominating season are vanishing here in a nasty crescendo of TV attack ads and street combat. These guys are out for blood, and they have good organizations to draw it. Dean may well win here, but I’m not sure it’s going to be the end of anything.

A Boston Globe editorial says Dean’s “act is wearing thin” and notes,

It’s always hazardous to offer a prediction in a caucus contest, particularly since Dean, who is advertising at a desperate pace, is also credited with having a strong organization here.

Yet reading the mood five days out, the frontrunner seems to be fading as his rivals grow. Which is why, rather than aiding his efforts to wrap the nomination up early, it seems more likely that conscientious Iowans will go to their caucuses and return results that confirm the increasingly competitive nature of the Democratic nominating contest.

John Podhoretz thinks Dean is in the midst of a “meltdown” and paints numerous scenarios where others could win. He does hedge his bets, though:

Despite his troubles, Howard Dean still has to be counted the favorite for the nomination. Dean has the most money, he has the most ardent support and he’s certainly interesting to watch. Every one of his rivals has deep problems of his own, and if they move forward those problems in connecting with voters will come to the fore as well.

This is all very interesting. The fact remains, however, that Dean is the candidate that most appeals to the people likely to vote in Democratic primaries and is far and away the leader in fundraising. It’s still very much his race to lose at this point. That’s not to say that another candidate–likely Clark or Edwards–couldn’t emerge as the consensus alternate choice and pull away from Dean in the South. But it’s a little early to be writing Dean off, too.

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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. Tom says:

    Tin Foil Hat Time:

    Could this be the scenerio that gives Hillary a chance to be the Convention candidate? It is setting up for the perfect storm. The main 4 candidates (Kerry, Edwards, Clark, and Dean) all arrive at the convention with a pocketful of delegates, but none with a lock on the nomination. All of the candidates are tarnish by the intense infighting from a hard fought battle.

    Fear is rampant amongst the Super-Delegates about a Republican route in November.

    In this instance, it would be the logical choice to draft Hillary from the floor for the nomination. Clarke would throw her his candidates for the VP position, and the rest excepting Dean would do what is right for the party.

    In November, the Deaniacs would come around to Hillary, as she would give them a chance to destroy Bush, and it would be a very tight election.

    Even if Bush wins, it puts Hillary in position to compete in 2008 untarnished because she was unable to develop her platform and team in only 5 months.

    Things are happenning today in perfect alignment for this to take place.

    Tin Foil Hat removed…

  2. James Joyner says:

    It strikes me as unlikely. I think the field will winnow itself pretty quickly after Super Tuesday, if not before. Gephardt and Lieberman are going to be out very soon, maybe in two weeks, and their supporters go somewhere. And, even if Kerry does well in New Hampshire, I think he dies in the South. So, it’s Dean-Clark-Edwards very soon.

  3. McGehee says:

    I expect the field to be down to six candidates after New Hampshire, no more than five of whom are viable. By Super Tuesday, maybe three including Kucinich.

    After Super Tuesday, the nomination will be pretty well decided but not yet clinched — that comes on March 2.

    <doffing the Karnak turban>