Last week, I blogged about how Dean was the most electable candidate in the race, and the bastard went and lost an election. I still think that if he went head-to-head with Bush, he would do better than any other Democrat, but if he doesn’t win some primaries, such what-ifs don’t matter. There’s no medal for the guy who would have been the fastest runner if he hadn’t tripped over his shoelaces in the first lap.
No matter how this race turns out for Dean, though, he has revealed something very interesting about how to win elections in America.
According to conventional wisdom, in a race with party primaries followed by a general elections, candidates have two constituencies. First, they have the voters who care enough about their party to vote in the primaries. Second, they have the larger pool of voters who turn out for the general election. Primary voters are more likely to be from the party fringes than general-election voters, so candidates have to perform a balancing act. If they are too moderate in the primaries, then they won’t win over their first constituency. If they are too extreme in the general election, then they won’t win the general election. If they change their stances too noticeably between the primary and the general election, they will alienate voters from their first constituency who trusted them during the primary.
One of Dean’s admirers at The New Republic (Noam Scheiber?) observed that Dean had a novel solution to this problem: he campaigned with the style of a firebrand liberal, but his positions and record were firmly moderate. If he becomes the nominee, he can change his style to attract swing voters, but his hard-core supporters will be comforted by the consistency of his platform.
Dean’s collapse in the polls this month, and his disappointing show in Iowa, however, reveals a third constituency—or rather, a zeroth constituency: people who are willing to give their money and time to a Presidential candidate before the primaries even begin. Dean’s style built up an incredible base of support from the zeroth constituency. But once the Iowa caucus neared, he had to make himself attractive to the first constituency, the people who actually voted. Furthermore, in a primary election where all the candidates are trying to increase voter turnout, and where “electability” is on everyone’s mind, the first constituency looks more and more like the second one.
The Dean campaign seems to realize their strategic mistake. Dean has made the rounds of late-night TV shows, brought his wife to campaign events, and otherwise strived to look more mainstream; the hard-core Deaniacs are still devoted to him. Will that change be enough to carry him to the nomination? Stay tuned, true believers….