January 2, 2007

Looking back on the 2004 primaries.

Back in July 2004, I reprinted some political analysis emailed by my son John Cohen. It went like this:
You wrote about how everyone watching the convention is imagining how the speeches will seem to someone else, even though it might be that none of those "someone elses" are actually watching the speeches. The same thing happened when Kerry won the primaries. Everyone was voting for him because they thought he would appeal to someone else. And those voters believed at the time that that was the politically savvy thing to do. But it was actually politically disastrous: if everyone was just voting for him because they thought someone else would like him, then NO ONE ACTUALLY LIKED HIM.

One problem is that if you're trying to choose the most "electable" person, I would imagine that you'd be likely to do it by process of elimination -- by ruling out all the candidates with obvious political liabilities. I think this is the number-one reason why Kerry won the primaries: he was the only candidate who didn't seem to have anything particularly wrong with him. Edwards was too inexperienced; Clark was a poor campaigner; Dean seemed kind of insane; Gephardt was too liberal; Lieberman was too conservative. So they choose the one candidate who has no qualities that would really make anyone hate him. The problem is that he also has no qualities that would really make anyone like him either.
Today, the interestingly named Jonathan Cohn has this analysis of the 2004 primaries in The New Republic:
The last time Democrats had to choose a nominee from a large field of candidates, in 2004, voters in the primaries said time and again that they had resolved to follow their minds rather than their hearts. Determined to beat President Bush any way they could, they picked the candidate who they believed stood the best chance of winning in the general election, rather than the candidate they liked best. And, with that in mind, they came up with reasons to reject almost every candidate.

Wesley Clark? He was too much of a political novice to win a general election. Howard Dean? Red staters could never stomach his left-wing extremism. John Edwards? More conservative voters might perceive him as too inexperienced, particularly on foreign policy. Dick Gephardt? Swing voters would associate him with the old, wasteful Democratic Party. Among the leading contenders, that left only John Kerry, who had no similarly glaring flaws. And that's a big reason (though, admittedly, not the only reason) he eventually became the nominee.

No doubt, the political flaws 2004 voters perceived in the other candidates were genuine. Dean's perceived extremism would indeed have been a hard sell down South; Clark really was prone to the stumbles you'd expect of a political rookie. Still, the calculation of voters was curiously one-sided--measuring candidates almost exclusively in terms of their flaws, rather than taking stock of their attributes, as well. It was if a Wall Street analyst sized up a company by examining its liabilities, while disregarding its assets. And the result was a predictably misguided conclusion.

If Kerry lacked the vulnerabilities of some of his rivals, he also lacked their skills. He couldn't win people over with charm or inspiration. And, while he had a bevy of nifty policy proposals, he had no grandiose, overarching message with which to sell them. So when the general campaign got tough, Kerry had no reservoir of public enthusiasm or support on which to draw.


Mortimer Brezny said...

It was obvious that Kerry was a pathetic loser.

During the debate season, he was unpopular, unliked, and hovered below 6% in the polls. In other words, almost no one found his arguments convincing or his biography inspiring. His fundraising was anemic and he ran out of cash.

Then he borrowed money from his wife, which reinvigorated his campaign just as other non-entities were dropping out and ceding turf.

Lieberman and Clark ducked Iowa, heading down to New Hampshire in an attempt to steal it from whoever won Iowa. Gephardt and Dean were the front-runners in Iowa, but they were running extremely nasty attack ads against each other. Using his wife's cash, Kerry paid for slick commercials copying very effective Gary Hart spots from the 80s. Kerry looked into the camera and smiled and talked about energy independence (read: ethanol). Those commercials tested at 80% in Iowa because they were personal and positive.

That is why Kerry won Iowa. Dean and Gephardt's negatives were so high from attack ads that Kerry was able to sweep in with nice commercials. In truth, the only candidate who earned his percentage in Iowa the hard way was John Edwards, who actually charmed people by showing up in person and gabbing. Again, the relentless positivity paid off because of the negative Gephardt and Dean ads and because Lieberman and Clark had retreated to New Hampshire, i.e., there was no competition!

Kerry maintained his momentum once he came out of Iowa in part because Dean's scream (which was a media creation, actually, the sound levels were only so mismatched on the media feed) was replayed endlessly on the news, making a comeback impossible. It was the scream incident which enabled the mass marketing of the Dean-is-crazy meme to overshadow his aura of inevitability. (Note that Dean had a better ground operation in Iowa than Kerry, but his negativity turned Iowans off.)

True enough, voters in later primaries voted for Kerry because he was "electable". But it was obvious that no one was convinced by his arguments, that no one liked him for his intrinsic qualities, and that the only reason he won the nomination was his wife's money and the terribly negative campaigns in Iowa that Gephardt and Dean ran. If Kerry hadn't a rich wife to borrow cash from, he would have dropped out earlier on, right about when he ran out of cash because almost no one was contributing. And he wouldn't have been able to afford those Gary Hart rip-off spots.

No reasonable Democrat really thought any other Democrats liked Kerry; they thought Republicans might like him. And no Democrat I talked to really seemed to have an explanation why that would be the case.

My advice to Democrats is to nominate candidates who make arguments that resonate with voters. If a candidate's appearance in the primary debates results in low poll numbers and low fundraising totals, her arguments are ineffective. Someone like that has lost; he shouldn't be able to steamroll other candidates with slick commercials paid for by his wife's dead ex-husband. South Carolina and Nevada were added to the early primary/caucus schedule in part because Kerry winning the nomination was the biggest dysfunction in the history of the nominating process of the Democratic Party in recent years.

Balfegor said...

If Kerry lacked the vulnerabilities of some of his rivals, he also lacked their skills.

But at the same time, didn't Democratic voters overlook some pretty major Kerry vulnerabilities? I don't think you'd have got anything comparable to (or remotely as powerful as) the Swift Boat Veterans thing with anyone else, because none of the other candidates had gone out of his way to accuse his fellow veterans of committing warcrimes left and right. In addition, when one of the Democrats' main anti-Bush tropes was that Bush was dumb, as evidenced by inter alia his C-student GPA, it was kind of dumb to trot out a candidate whose academic history suggested he was, if anything, even dumber than Bush, as though that would be some kind of improvement. Dean and Clark, whatever their faults, would not have run into those problems.

Part of the problem may have been that Kerry had few "positive" qualities. But part of it is that Democratic primary voters just did a bad job evaluating candidates' electoral liabilities.

Der Hahn said...

The most interesting thing in those lists of candidate negatives is the dog that isn't barking : Kerry's sketchy service record and his 'Jenjis Kahn' testimony before Congress. Nobody on the Democrat side thought those things would be an issue?

Mortimer Brezny said...

In addition, when one of the Democrats' main anti-Bush tropes was that Bush was dumb

I can't tell you how much it bothered me that Democrats made a pact not to attack each other during the later debates. The theory was this would prevent Republican mining of free negative footage and protect whatever Democratic candidate who emerged from the primary battlefield. What it did is insulate the top contenders from having their ideas challenged openly on the merits. Instead of a battle-hardened victor emerging from the debates with a solid presentation of refined ideas, you had some guy whose arguments were incoherent if not inconsistent and unconvincing no matter what. Kerry should have been Swiftboated by Democrats during the primary debate season, but he wasn't because Democrats were, boringly, united against Bush. Kerry was allowed to flail, fade away, buy his way back in, and then coast toward mediocrity. That isn't just bad evaluation of a candidate's weaknesses, it's a weak commitment to the practice of democracy. And allowing the token candidates in the debates, all of whom simply agreed with Dean -- thus wasting time that more likely nominees could have spent talking -- was annoying. If you aren't gaining ground over the course of debates in terms of increased fundraising or increased poll numbers, you should be banned; this is a popularity contest; the most popular ideas, ideas the people are willing to pay for, win. That means goodbye to Vilsack and Dodd and probably Richardson. Let Obama and Hillary and Edwards and maybe Biden nuke each other. Kerry, hopefully, will just GO AWAY.

Shanna said...

The Democrats picked Kerry in part because they thought/think picking a candidate, any candidate, who has served in the military will eliminate their national security weakness and it just doesn't work that way.

So they flipped out about Bush's national guard service because they decided Kerry's was better and that that would make people trust them with national security. I think it was because Kerry was the only candidate they had with military service that they nominated him and I think their hope that this would win them points in national security made them discount all the very obvious failings of their candidate.

LoafingOaf said...

I might be pulling this out of my behind, but I thought the one candidate on the Democrat field who had the best chance in the election was Dick Gephardt.

I see no reason why he wouldn't have won all the states Kerry won. Plus he would've won Iowa and...I believe he'd have done much better than Kerry in Ohio. That would've been enough to beat Bush.

The reason for doing better in Ohio is a combination of his more down to earth "regular guy" personality and his deep union ties. Kerry pranced into Ohio and had his goose hunting photo-ops and came across all wrong and phoney and people were laughing at him rather than relating to him. Kerry nevertheless got close to winning the state, so a candidate that a few less people were laughing at would've been the difference. Gephart also wouldn't have made his convention all about Vietnam, which was a laughable mistake by Kerry.

I personally would never have voted for Gephardt because I'm not into economic protectionism and think he would harm our economy. But he's always come across as a relatively sincere guy compared with other national politicians. I doubt he would've been seen as "too liberal" in Ohio. Ohio just elected Sherrod Brown to the Senate.

I guess Gephardt was overlooked in the primaries because he wasn't apologetic enough about Iraq and he seemed too boring. Someone tell me why he wouldn't have done slightly better than Kerry in the general election though. Slightly better is all they needed!

Mortimer Brezny said...

Okay. I am noticing that I am starting to channel Althouse.

LoafingOaf said...

The bottom line is Democrats put way too much stock in thinking all they needed was a "war hero." They thought they were being clever. What's most important is how much people relate to a presidential candidate AS A PERSON. IMHO.

Balfegor said...

Re: Shanna:

I think it was because Kerry was the only candidate they had with military service that they nominated him

Well, except that Wesley Clark was a 4-star general. And he served in Vietnam too. He had a creepy stare, sure, but some image consultants could have solved that by coaching him to blink naturally in front of the TV cameras.

Mortimer Brezny said...

Gephardt didn't have full union support; Dean had split the unions; he lost terribly in Iowa without the union ground-game (though he was second in the polls after Dean).

Thorley Winston said...

The most interesting thing in those lists of candidate negatives is the dog that isn't barking : Kerry's sketchy service record and his 'Jenjis Kahn' testimony before Congress. Nobody on the Democrat side thought those things would be an issue?

Agreed, why Democrats didn’t realize that picking a candidate who started his political career by slandering US servicemen to run against a war-time President during a time of war was a bad idea is beyond me. Maybe they were hoping that no one would catch the forged TANG documents. ;)

dick said...

Came close in Ohio? What are you smoking. The man lost by over 120K votes in Ohio. That does not remotely seem close to me.

Bush came closer than that in Pennsylvania and really close in Wisconsin and Minnesota.