Notes on the Atrocities
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Tuesday, January 20, 2004  

Lessons from Iowa

Submitting to a character flaw, I tried to predict the outcome of yesterday's Iowa caucuses. I'm a sucker for predicting; sadly, I lack prophetic insight. I'll demonstrate a character strength today and learn from my mistake: already the spinmeisters are breaking down what Iowa means to each of the candidates and realigning their predictions. I'll avoid falling into that hole twice. As I look at the field of four now (Clark, Dean, Edwards, Kerry), I can envision ways in which each could win the Presidency, and ways in which each could fail to win a single primary. It will depend on how well each campaign adjusts to the lessons of Iowa.

Leading up to this election cycle, two very different assumptions led to two very different conclusions about the US electorate in 2004. Bush's consistently strong approval numbers, his smooth efficiency in getting legislation through, and his standing as a war-time leader led one group to conclude that Bush embodied America's wishes. In the other camp, a group looked at the same evidence and concluded that Bush--and the entire GOP--had overplayed their hand and the approval was very soft.

The jury's still out, but Iowa sends a pretty strong message that this year's political calculus has shifted. Turnout in Iowa was twice what it was in 2000. The extreme volatility of the final days suggests to me that this group was highly engaged; they ignored trends and conventional wisdom and looked at the candidates and their positions. More to the point, they considered who could beat Bush. A large, engaged electorate will help any Democrat who emerges. The GOP's best chances lie with complacency and apathy. Bush isn't going to get re-elected if 15-20% more people turn out in November.

Candidates can gain confidence that they don't have to play conservative--the electorate wants change. This was, in a sense, the same message that Dean's early success sent, but no one was listening. Dean has painted himself into a corner of negativity and that allowed Edwards to sweep in. I still read the lesson the same: voters want change.

Staying Positive
It appears that Edwards and Kerry vaulted over Dean and Gephardt because they stayed positive. I'm not at all surprised. Back in May of 2003, I argued that the only way to begin to combat the GOP slime machine was to stay positive. Slime works great for Republicans, but it's only effective with the hardcore base of the Democratic Party. Everyone else gets disgusted and fails to vote. We just saw that a roused electorate has no interest in attack ads this year--they want change, not slime.

Attack ads are the crack cocaine of politics, and I don't expect them to completely vanish. But the larger lesson is that a campaign must be positive.

All Dems are Outsiders
From the voters' perspective, every Democrat running is an outsider. John Kerry may have been in elected office for 20 years, but when he stands against the Bush administration, Democrats rightly regard him as an outsider. Democrats have been fully excluded from power in Washington for three years now--and their influence has been waning for a generation. It's not surprising to me that at the end of the day people looked at Kerry and said, "this is the guy who can beat Bush and change America." If it's all about beating the President, the insider/outsider issue is moot. I think all the candidates recognize this, but Iowa drove the point home.

posted by Jeff | 8:32 AM |
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