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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Once Again on the Dean Question

DR’s posts on the Dean electability question (July 14, 16 and 17) have generated some comment, including most recently this post by MyDD and this post by Demosthenes, in which they hasten to assure me that my misgivings about Dean’s electability are misplaced.
I can’t say I was convinced, any more than I was by
Jonathan Cohn’s fine case for the good doctor in The New Republic.  But I think their posts are instructive because they reveal some of the assumptions that Dean boosters tend to make when arguing (in essence) that only Democratic wimps, hopeless Establishment types and/or DLCers believe Dean can’t beat Bush. 
Assumption #1: Dean’s association with liberal social issues like gay marriage won’t hurt him much—or, at least any more than any other Democrat will be hurt by social liberalism–because he is conservative on other social issues (guns, death penalty).  Anyway, the country is becoming more liberal on issues concerning gays (witness the recent Supreme Court decision), so Dean won’t seem nearly so out-of-step as a lot of commentators think.
Problem #1: Yes, all Democrats, including nominal front-runner Kerry, will have to battle social liberalism critiques and hit jobs if nominated.  But that’s exactly why you don’t want to present too much of an easy target and Dean does, due to not only the specific issue of gay marriage (still a bridge too far for most of the public, as opposed to legalizing gay sex, which they support), but also his geographic origins and the general profile of his candidacy.  
Assumption #2: Dean’s antiwar stance will not hurt him; in fact, it’ll help him, now that Iraq has evolved into a seemingly intractable mess and the public is starting to wonder whether the whole adventure was worth the costs.  Dean’s been consistently against the war, while the other candidates, like Kerry, have not and voters will reward that consistency.
Problem #2: Voters do not necessarily reward consistency.  They reward those who seem to represent their view of the world and what needs to be done.  The fact of the matter is that Kerry’s ambivalence-but-reluctant-support of the Iraq war more fairly represented the public’s view of the war going in than did Dean’s intransigent opposition and Kerry’s  current move from ambivalence toward a critique of Bush’s approach also fairly represents how the public mood is evolving.  So the inconsistent Kerry is probably in a much better position than the consistent Dean to capture the moderate voters who are becoming disaffected with the war’s aftermath, as well as the administration’s mendacity.  And don’t forget: Kerry’s war hero status does matter and will help allay moderate voters’ fears that a critique of Bush comes from Democratic softness on national security, not from a realistic, tough-minded appraisal of what it’ll take to beat terrorists and keep America safe.
Assumption #3: Sure, Dean may have some trouble with some independent voters.  But he will do well with independent-leaning members of the public who do not currently vote.  In fact, he will bring out enough of these currently nonvoting independents to more than cancel out his losses among today’s independent voters.
Problem #3: This almost never works.  The idea you can make up serious losses among existing voters by turning out lots of nonvoters is a very dangerous game indeed.  Nonvoters rarely differ enough from voters of similar characteristics to warrant such an approach.  (For those who want the long course on why this is so, DR recommends, in all due modesty, 
The Disappearing American Voter)  Instead, stick to the tried and true: get out your base (the folks you know will vote for you); fight like hell for the swing voters; and hope that an exciting campaign will bring in some new voters that will lean your way.  But to vest your hopes in new voters is a serious—albeit common—mistake. 
Well, all for now and, as DR is fond of saying: let the debate continue!
Coming soon in DR: The Demographics of Deanism