The 2004 Iowa caucuses are remembered for two events, occurring within minutes of each other: John F. Kerry’s resurrection and Howard Dean’s scream. They’re also remembered for Kerry coming out of nowhere in the final weeks, an inspiration to candidates who the media has written off.
The real story was a little more complicated. First, Kerry was always relatively strong in Iowa, just not dominant until the end. Second, Dean did not start out expecting to become the antiwar candidate, or the candidate of young voters, or the guy who yelled into a microphone. He opened an exploratory committee in May 2002, 19 months before the caucuses, and initially focused his candidacy on universal health care. To the extent that he was known at all, it was because he signed civil union legislation in 2000, when same-sex marriage was politically toxic.
“Dean considers his conservative fiscal record and his expansion of health care the hallmarks of his governorship,” Jonathan Cohn wrote in an early profile of the candidate.
The Iraq War changed everything. Of the four candidates who would fight for the lead in Iowa, only Dean opposed it. Kerry voted for the resolution that enabled the March 2003 invasion, as did Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, as did Dick Gephardt, whose nearly final act as House minority leader was losing most of his conference as he backed the Iraq vote. Dean benefited from that instantly, and by April 2003, he was competitive in polls of Iowa.
“The data also hinted that John F. Kerry could become a formidable candidate and that John Edwards was a direct threat to Dean,” the governor’s pollster, Paul Maslin, eventually revealed in the Atlantic.
Nationally, and in New Hampshire, Dean began to run away with the race by the summer. Iowa was more complicated, because Dean’s new image did not sync up with the record he’d initially planned to run on. In Vermont, usually ignored by the national media, he’d talked about putting Social Security “on the table,” a comment that Gephardt would throw back in his face in debates and ads. Dean slashed Gephardt right back, portraying him as the weakest in a bevy of Washington-based candidates, and saying he’d “hung his own people out to dry” on the Iraq vote.
Kerry and Edwards benefited from the back-and-forth, and even from how Gephardt had tied up most labor support, denying Dean some traditional organizing strength. Dean’s campaign, the first to really take advantage of online organizing, set a goal of bringing 5,000 supporters into Iowa from other states; 3,500 showed up, still an overwhelming number.
The “perfect storm” of grass-roots supporters put fear into Dean’s rivals, and when he lost, some Democrats overlearned the lesson. The problem was not with how Dean organized. It was with his record, and Democratic nervousness about whether he could win in November. Late-deciding voters ran away from Dean, especially after the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq caused a spike in President George W. Bush’s approval rating. Dean ran weakest with voters who prioritized “experience,” voters who lacked college degrees, and voters over 65, and he did not replace those voters with a new, young antiwar bloc.
He couldn’t do it, which convinced some campaigns that no candidate could. They would be wrong.