Joe Trippi was the mastermind behind the rise of former Gov. Howard Dean in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary fight. Dean's candidacy -- premised on representing the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party" -- stoked massive grassroots energy and took the party establishment by storm. Sound familiar? I reached out to Joe to talk about the similarities -- and differences -- between what Dean did back then and what Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is doing right now. Our conversation, conducted by e-mail and edited only for grammar, is below.
THE FIX: How much of what Howard Dean was experiencing in 2003 do you see in Sanders right now? Is there a key strain that runs from the Dean campaign directly through the Sanders bid?
Trippi: I see more big differences than similarities between the Dean and Sanders campaigns. It starts with the structure of the race. We faced three establishment Democrats not one. John Kerry, Dick Gephardt and John Edwards were three strong candidacies that were splitting the vote and donor support of the party establishment in 2003. So when we started to move we actually took the lead in national polls and in each of the key states.
Sanders faces a completely different problem. No one is splitting the party establishment with Hillary. She has it all to herself. When we were at 30 percent we had the lead. Sanders gets to 30 percent and he is still 25 points behind. The second structural difference in the race is born out of a similarity. Yes they both come from Vermont, a state that is mostly white. But Dean did not face in Kerry, Gephardt or Edwards any candidate that had a significant advantage or following in the African American community. In fact in poll after poll, Dean attracted more than his fair share of the black vote. Had we faced a Kennedy or a Clinton that would not have been the case. Sanders is going to have a much more difficult time overcoming Hillary's advantage in the African American community and that is eventually going to be a big problem as the campaign turns to South Carolina and beyond. In fact if he can't solve it, he can't win.
So I think Sanders' path to the nomination is much more difficult than the path we faced in the Dean campaign in 2003. The biggest difference between them, and the one that could benefit Sanders, is that he isn't a threat to the Democratic establishment. They just don't see him becoming a threat to actually win the nomination. That's a good thing. Because when the establishment saw us as a threat to win the nomination they hit us with everything they had to stop us. No one in the party establishment is hacking away at Sanders. Yet.
One thing I thing that I think is a key strain from 2003 through today, and we are seeing it in both parties, is how both party establishments are losing control of their nominating processes. The energy of the Dean Sleepless Summer tour in 2003 is very similar to the energy and sheer size of recent Sanders rallies this summer. Sanders, like Dean, is raising millions not from the establishment donors of the party but from small donors online. The party establishment can't stop that. We are seeing the same loss of control on the GOP side. It doesn't mean the establishments of the parties won't win, but it does mean they will no longer be able to stop every challenge. Witness Barack Obama 2008.
THE FIX: Dean argued that he represented the Democratic wing of the Democratic party. Is that Sanders appeal to voters? And, if so, what does that say about Hillary Clinton?
Trippi: The war in Iraq was a driving issue in 2003. Kerry, Edwards and Gephardt had all voted for the war. People forget now that when Dean launched his campaign for president, 80 percent of the American people supported the war. It takes a hell of a lot of courage for a candidate for president to take the 20 percent side of that kind of an issue but Dean did. Dean was a Democrat who would stand up to George W, Bush when other Democrats were voting to go to war. That's far different than what Sanders is saying today. We have had a Democratic president for two terms. It's tough to argue to Democratic primary voters that Obama wasn't left enough on the economy. Or that you are going to do more on income inequality than Hillary. Sanders is tapping into the voters' angst that the system is rigged -- and it's clearly powerful and driving amazing energy into his campaign -- but it's different fuel.
I am not sure it says anything about Hillary. Kerry received 251 electoral votes against Bush with a message that had nothing to do with anything Dean said. I am not sure whoever the GOP nominee is will be as strong as George W. Bush running for re-election while prosecuting a war that was popular at the time.
THE FIX: Dean didn’t — or couldn’t — translate big crowds and lots of enthusiasm into wins. Why not? And how can Sanders avoid repeating those mistakes?
Trippi: People get more pragmatic the closer they get to an actual vote. We drew large crowds and lots of energy but there was always a fear among the party establishment that we couldn't beat Bush. In the end those kinds of doubts always move voters back towards the establishment's candidate. Obama overcame this fear win when he won in Iowa. Sanders will have to win a state early. Again the key for Sanders may be that the establishment doesn't fear him. If they hadn't feared us (the Gore endorsement made sure they did) and they hadn't all gone on the attack, we probably would have won Iowa.
THE FIX: Are people — Democratic establishment types, the media — taking Sanders seriously enough? Why or why not?
Trippi: No, the establishment and media are not taking Sanders seriously enough. The GOP establishment and media are not taking their insurgents serious enough. When Gary Hart took second to Walter Mondale in Iowa in 1984, Hart launched like a rocket. But people mailed checks in those days -- and banks in Denver placed 7 day holds on all out of state checks back then. Today if one of these candidates surprises, millions will pour in a few hours.
The establishments in both parties have no idea how vulnerable they are. They may laugh at the Sanders' candidacy today. I may think he has a tough path to the nomination, but the biggest mistake you can make in 2016 is underestimating your opponent. Both party establishments are not only underestimating the possibility of falling to an insurgent within their party but the very real possibility of a successful independent candidacy emerging. It's going to happen the only question is when. 2016 or 2020?
THE FIX: What’s Sanders' ceiling in the race. And how does he reach it?
Trippi: I think its likely that 35 percent is Sanders' ceiling [nationally]. It will take time and expanding his ability to grow support in the African American community and other minority voters to get much above that. If Joe Biden or someone else was in the race splitting the establishment vote like we had in 2003, 35 percent might be enough. But right now Sanders' path even with the establishment underestimating him is tougher than the one we faced in 2003.