As Howard Dean rolls on, consider these two historical trends when evaluating his chances: the Money Factor and the Geek Factor.
Dean, a former nobody governor from Vermont, enters the primary season — which starts with Iowa caucuses on January 19 — as the Bush-basher to beat. One reason: In recent decades, the candidate who possesses the biggest campaign bank balance at the beginning of the primaries ends up winning the nomination. And Dean, who has set Democratic records in fund-raising, has the most moolah to spend in Iowa, New Hampshire and the primaries that come afterward.
A presidential contender needs a lot of money to sustain a bid — especially in the second round of the primaries when campaigns must mount operations and air television ads in several states simultaneously. This year, Dean combines two assets that usually do not go hand in hand. He has the money advantage that usually is possessed by the establishment candidate (think ex-Veep Walter Mondale in 1984), but he has also positioned himself as an insurgent in the race (as Senator Gary Hart did in 1984). He’s no cut-the-Pentagon, amnesty-for-all-undocumented-workers radical like Representative Dennis Kucinich. But he has railed against Washington, especially his fellow Democrats who did not stand up to Bush on the war and the tax cuts, and he has derided members of Congress as “cockroaches.” Dean, who previously was known as mostly a centrist and fiscally conservative Democrat in Vermont, is a rare political creature: a maverick with money.
He appeals to fed-up Democrats who want a passionate candidate. And he has the resources to build an organization that can maximize his grass-roots support, amplify his message and do battle with any other Democratic campaign. This is certainly enough to bag him the nomination, particularly since the non-Dean Democratic vote is divided among eight others. But how far can all of this get Dean in the Big Show — the race against Bush?
Forget for the moment that Dean, or whomever the Democrats pick, will face a Bush campaign that will raise $200 million or so. (The Democratic nominee will be damn lucky to raise a third or half of that.) Instead, let’s ponder the main criticism that Dean’s Democratic opponents — especially Senator John Kerry — have been hurling at him: He lacks “electability.” The argument is that Dean is too liberal, too inexperienced (most notably in the field of national security), too gaffe prone, or too all-of-the-above to vanquish Bush. That may well be. But coming from, say, Kerry or Senator Joseph Lieberman, the charge seems an accusation born of desperation, for it is also true that a Democratic nominee unable to jazz up Democratic voters is not likely to boot Bush out of office. And no other Dem has motivated the die-hards as much as Dean. The supposedly surging Wesley Clark, a born-recently Democrat, is still proving his chops as a candidate.
Electability is not a matter to dismiss. There are poli-sci wonks who have plotted ways a no-name (until now) governor from a liberal northeastern state could gather a majority of electoral votes without winning a single southern state. And polls show that the nation is so equally (and bitterly) divided between D’s and R’s that if a Democratic nominee attracts all his natural audience and does well in four toss-up states, he can win the White House. But there remains the Geek Factor.
Look at presidential elections in modern times. The candidate with the less geeky public persona always wins. War hero Dwight Eisenhower versus egghead Adlai Stevenson. Debonair John Kennedy versus awkward Richard Nixon. Political fixer Lyndon Johnson versus conservative intellectual Barry Goldwater. Folksy Jimmy Carter versus bumbling Gerald Ford. Ex-actor Ronald Reagan versus malaise-ridden Jimmy Carter. And so on. In 1984, Reagan crushed the whiny Mondale. In 1988, both Dukakis and George Bush the Elder scored high on the geekometer. (In that campaign, Bush even had to deny he was a wimp.) But clearly Bush was less the nerd. Clinton the brainiac bubba defeated Bush I and after that Bob Dole, whose stilted campaign rhetoric seemed to have been designed by the Senate parliamentarian. In 2000, the geekier of the two contenders — Al Gore, a certified policy-oholic who needed advice on how to be an alpha male — did win more votes, but his frat-boyish, geekiness-free competitor came close enough to exploit lucky breaks and connections to win the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It’s as if Central Casting is in charge. The fellow who looks like he should receive the role of president in America: The Movie is the guy who wins. I don’t want to be overly superficial about this. There are some obvious reasons. Voting for president is, for many, a psychological act. You are choosing not merely the top manager of the federal bureaucracy but the leader of your nation, the person whom you believe best embodies your own view of the United States. Presentation counts as much as — if not more than — policy. And busy voters who cannot sort out the details of competing Medicare drug-benefits proposals pick their commander in chief on the basis of impressions.
Put Howard Dean next to George W. Bush (the post-9/11 version). Does Dean look more presidential? Not yet. After all, who can better seem presidential than the president? Perhaps that is why incumbents tend to win unless external circumstances persuade voters a change is needed. So if Iraq does not descend into an uglier and bloodier mess, and if the job situation in America does not deteriorate further — and if no other calamity befalls the nation — next November Bush could be a lock. But if the developments in Iraq or at home prompt worry about Bush’s leadership among undecided voters, then that small slice of voters who have not yet pledged themselves for or against Bush will look to compare Bush against his Democratic challenger.
Can Dean, a too-smart fellow with a know-it-all manner who at this point generates more heat than confidence, come across as less geeky than the aw-shucks fortunate son who was transformed by 9/11 into a decisive (if arrogant and misguided) world leader? Being right (in terms of policies) will not be enough for Dean. Bill Clinton recently observed that the American public generally prefers “strong and wrong” over “weak and right.” And Sheriff Bush sure fills the strong-but-wrong shoes to capacity. At this stage it’s tough to envision a casting agent selecting Dean over Bush. This is not to suggest that Democrats should flock to more conventional stock-character types, such as Kerry or Clark — since neither have yet distinguished themselves as candidates, and presidential elections are won not only by the less geeky but also by the better campaigners. This is only to suggest that Democrats and Dean — should he be so lucky — ought to start pondering how to deal with the geek gap. It will take more than money to buck this long-standing electoral trend.