The political obituary of Howard Dean, the
former governor of Vermont and fiscal conservative-cum-anti-war
liberal Democratic presidential aspirant, has yet to be written.
Despite his disappointing third place showing in the Iowa caucuses,
Dean still has a fighting man’s chance at the nomination even
if he places second in tomorrow’s New Hampshire primary. The
aura of inevitability that had cloaked Dean for months is now gone
and he faces a long, hard slog to a successful coronation at the
Democratic National Convention in Boston, but the candidate still
possesses formidable assets. The prowess of the Dean fundraising
machine, the awesome might of the Dean website, the companied
passion of hordes of bloggers and most incredible of all, that
invincible, indefatigable, almost inhuman army of orange-capped
volunteers of Deaniacs.

Kate Green

“Organization,” which everyone on down from David
Yepsen, the dean of the Iowa press corps, pronounced to be the
“key to victory,” had an awfully uninspiring effect on
Dean’s performance last Monday. The 3,500 volunteers, from
college students to union operatives, who canvassed the state for
Dean were utterly ineffectual. The incantation of
“organization, organization, organization” proved to be
a chimera, as both Dean and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri got
stomped by the smaller field operation of Massachusetts Sen. John
Kerry and the practically nonexistent crop of volunteers working
for Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Dean did so poorly in Iowa
that he told The Washington Post this weekend that the state would
“have to change its caucus system” if it wanted to
retain its position at the start of the sprint for the nomination.
From denouncing the caucuses as an electoral travesty captured by
“special interests” to shamelessly pandering for
Iowa’s special place in the nomination process and back
again, Dean’s position tracks perfectly with the perceived
utility of the Dean organization.

The failure of the much-vaunted Dean volunteer effort is a
particularly delicious bout of irony for those who doubted the
guiding principle of the Dean campaign: Appeal to the liberal wing,
get out first-time voters and swamp the center. Dean made a lot of
enemies when he boasted to LA Weekly last summer that
“we’ve already got 39,000 people working for us all
around the country . . . I really do believe — and I think
about this — I want to get this nomination, and if I
don’t . . . these kids are not transferable. I can’t
just go out and say, ‘Okay, so I didn’t win the
nomination, so go ahead and vote for the Democrats.’
They’re not going to suddenly just go away. That’s not
gonna happen.” Dean’s arrogance lay with his belief
that he could power himself to the nomination by offering the
voters “a choice, not an echo” à la the 1964
Barry Goldwater campaign. Dean would mobilize all those alienated
voters and bring these new voters to the polls in a political
tsunami.

While it was all about the kids last August, last Monday Kerry
walloped Dean in Iowa’s college towns. From Grinnell to Iowa
City to Ames, youth refused to drink the Kool-Aid of Generation
Dean. George Davey, a Dean precinct captain, told Slate’s
Chris Suellentrop, “I think if we could blame (Dean’s
loss) on anyone, blame it on the 18- to 25-year-olds, because they
were nonexistent.” And this was an electoral event
tailor-made to increase the clout of activists; what’s going
to happen to Dean in the Oklahoma primary?

The reasons for Dean’s troubles are twofold. First,
organization will never be as potent as it was in the era of
wardheeling machine politics. The conventional wisdom that cable
news and the Internet have dramatically altered the motivations of
the electorate holds true in this instance. Through technological
innovation, political information can travel faster than ever
before and voters have intimate access to candidates. The failures
of the Dean and Gephardt field operations are just the most recent
episodes in the long, slow decline of organizational
politicking.

More relevant to future campaign strategists is the lesson that
the “new voter mobilization” gambit cannot work in a
large-scale campaign. No matter who is espousing that argument, be
it Phyllis Schlafly in 1964 or George Lakoff in 2004, it
doesn’t work. The tragedy of Howard Dean is that there were
signs that he had already absorbed this lesson at the beginning of
his quest for the presidency. In 2002 he told a crowd of supporters
“Get the gun issue off the table … It cost Al Gore
three states — and the presidency.” Unfortunately for
Dean, it’s probably much too late to return to the immutable
wisdom of political expediency.

Peskowitz can be reached at
“mailto:zpeskowi@umich.edu”>zpeskowi@umich.edu.

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