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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Is Dean Electable?

That’s really the question, isn’t it?  Now that his boosters are getting over the euphoria of his fundraising numbers and his indisputable status as one of the top tier candidates in the Democratic race, they are (to their credit) starting to engage on the issue of his electability.  Yes, indeed, Dean has a reasonable chance of capturing the Democratic nomination.  But does he have a reasonable chance of actually beating Bush?
John Judis’ piece in Salon.com argues: not really; in fact, he’ll probably get clobbered.  The essence of Judis’ argument is that, while Dean can fairly be said to represent the ethos of the country’s increasingly influential professional class, which plays a leading role in today’s Democratic coalition, his ability to appeal outside that group and other elements of the Democratic base is likely to be poor.  His aggressive antiwar stance and liberalism on issues like gay marriage will turn off swing voters, especially white working class and culturally conservative voters, and especially in swing states the Democrats need to win to build an electoral vote majority.
DR thinks Judis is right.  But TAPPED and Jerome Armstrong (writing in MyDD) offer some counterarguments that deserve attention.  Perhaps their dominant theme is that Judis is contradicting his own thesis in The Emerging Democratic Majority by saying that Dean represents the views of the professional class–which EDM annoints as the ideological leader of the new Democratic coalition–but somehow can’t put that coalition together.
DR is pretty familiar with the EDM thesis and can assure TAPPED and MyDD that there is no contradiction.  The key point is that political leadership involves building coalitions that reach outside your base and absorb independent and moderate voters who are leaning your way.  Clinton’s strength was being able to synthesize the views of professionals with those of older elements of the Democratic coalition and present that synthesis in a way that made enough independent and moderate voters feel it was safe to vote Democratic.  That includes the white working class and culturally conservative voters Dean is likely to have the most trouble with.
Really, it seems to DR that Dean supporters’ main argument has to be that the Dean straight talkin’, McCain mojo, aggressive alpha-male thing will obviate any need for the kind of electoral finesse displayed by Clinton.  Independents will hear that straight talkin’ and they’ll rush to sign up, especially as the administration continues to dissemble on Iraq, etc.  But DR believes that not all independents are created equal and that Dean’s approach and persona is still likely to yield its most success with socially liberal, upscale independents in relatively liberal states.
None of this is to say that Dean couldn’t possibly beat Bush in any situation.  If the administration gets into enough hot water on Iraq and the economy anything is possible.  But, if they get into that kind of hot water, then a more moderate, less polarizing–less purely professional class!–candidate like Kerry or Gephardt is even more likely to be able to beat Bush.
It’s all a matter of probabilities.  Dean’s supporters can make a case that he possibly could beat Bush if enough things went his way.  But we need to look at probabilities not possibilities and that’s where Dean’s candidacy falls short.