Sunday, 1 February 2004

Howard's End: Wisconsin?

Both Sean Hackbarth and Matt Ygelsias note new Dean campaign head honcho Roy Neel’s submarine strategy for gaining the nomination:

Our goal for the next two and a half weeks is simple—become the last-standing alternative to John Kerry after the Wisconsin primary on February 17.

Why Wisconsin? First, it is a stand-alone primary where we believe we can run very strong. Second, it kicks off a two-week campaign for over 1,100 delegates on March 2, and the shift of the campaign that month to nearly every big state: California, New York, and Ohio on March 2, Texas and Florida on March 9, Illinois on March 16, and Pennsylvania on April 27.

In the meantime, Howard Dean is traveling to many of the February 3 states, sending surrogates—including Al Gore—to most, and conducting radio interviews in all. We believe that one or more of our major opponents will be eliminated that day, and that the others will fall by the wayside as our strength grows in the following days. As a result we have elected to not buy television advertisements in February 3 states, but instead direct our resources toward the February 7 and 8 contests in Michigan, Washington and Maine. We may not win any February 3 state, but even third place finishes will allow us to move forward, continue to amass delegates in Virginia and Tennessee on February 10, and then strongly challenge Kerry in Wisconsin.

Regardless of who takes first place in these states, we think that after Wisconsin we’ll get Kerry in the open field. Remember one crucial thing about the 2004 calendar—in previous years a front-runner or presumptive nominee would typically emerge after most of the states had voted and most of the delegates had been chosen. The final competitor to that candidate, even if he won late states, as many have done, has not been able to win a majority of delegates under any scenario.

This year is very different. The media and the party insiders will attempt to declare Kerry the winner on February 3 after fewer than 10% of the state delegates have been chosen. At that point Kerry himself will probably have claimed fewer than one third of the delegates he needs to win. They would like the campaign to be over before the voters of California, New York, Texas and nearly every other big state have spoken.

Democrats in Florida, who witnessed a perversion of democracy in November 2000, will not have a choice concerning the nominee if the media and the party insiders have their way.

We intend to make this campaign a choice. We alone of the remaining challengers to John Kerry are geared to the long haul—we’ve raised nearly $2 million in the week after Iowa, over $600,000 in the 48 hours since New Hampshire. No candidate—not even Kerry, who mortgaged his house and tapped his personal fortune to funnel $7 million into his campaign—will have sufficient funds to advertise in all, or even most, of the big states that fall on March 2 and beyond. At that point paid advertising becomes much less of a factor.

The question is whether Dean’s campaign can stop the bleeding long enough, and keep the cash rolling in, while Kerry racks up primary wins in state after state and pulls ahead in the delegate count. February 17th isn’t that far off, but for Dean—who may not pick up a single delegate between today and then, due to the 15% threshold rule†—it could nonetheless be too far off. To be competitive after Wisconsin, Dean will need the cash in hand to run effective ads in “big media” states like California, Florida, and Texas to counter the inevitable publicity and fundraising advantages Kerry will have as the presumptive frontrunner, and to expand his base beyond the core activists and true believers. Presumably Dean will pick up some support from Clark’s base after Clark leaves the field, but I don’t think that’s enough to build a lead over Kerry anywhere.

That isn’t to say it’s a bad strategy to employ, relative to all the others. Dean already knew February 3rd was a lost cause without the expected momentum from New Hampshire and Iowa, and he can probably wait out Clark and Lieberman’s inevitable withdrawals. The race should be a 3-man contest by the time Wisconsin rolls around, assuming Edwards wins South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. I just don’t know that any strategy can save the Dean campaign now, barring a collapse by Kerry.

Update: Colby Cosh notes that Joe Lieberman may win more delegates than Dean on Tuesday, due to the former’s decent showing in the polls in Delaware. However, Steven Jens’s estimates disagree.

Also of note: Eric Lindholm finds promise in the strategy, while Greg of Begging to Differ doesn’t see how it could work.

† It isn’t actually that bad: Dean will probably pick up a few delegates in Michigan and Washington, as the 15% rule is applied at the congressional district level; assuming he can get his student supporters (hopefully registered already!) to come out and vote, he should pick up a delegate or two from each of the congressional districts that Michigan, Michigan State, Washington, and Washington State are in. However, I’m not sure the media estimates are including the congressional district factor in their election-night calculations, which may hurt perceptions of his strength based on early returns.