Inside the Dean Campaign

Howard Dean's political pollster talks about the campaign's extraordinary rise and crashing fall.

The Dean campaign had a true air of revolution about it. There was the feisty and original candidate, the daring and brooding campaign manager, the young and eager volunteers, the committed grassroots network, and all those under-$100 checks that kept pouring in and breaking records. But after Dean's spectacular collapse, beginning with his loss in Iowa and the "I have a scream" concession speech, it was hard not to question how everything could have fallen apart so quickly. Was the revolution for real?

According to Paul Maslin, Dean's political pollster, it was for real. For Maslin, that revolution—and all the changes wrought by it in the American political scene—is the legacy of the Dean campaign. In "The Front-Runner's Fall" in the May 2004 Atlantic, Maslin tells the inside story of the Dean campaign—shedding new light on its failures and its successes

Dean's willingness to confront George Bush, attack the Democratic Party, and oppose the Iraq war drew voters to him. That boldness, however, was also accompanied by Dean's "erratic judgment, loose tongue, and overall stubbornness," as well as his refusal to "to be scripted, to be disciplined, or to discipline himself." Maslin writes that the campaign

"desperately needed an 'adult' . . . to help provide some stability around him, or simply to take him to the woodshed when he did screw up, to reduce the chances of its happening again. Such a person didn't exist in Howard Dean's personal orbit and the campaign never found one to do the job."

In the end, it seems clear that the very qualities that were attractive about Dean were some of the things that brought about his defeat in the Iowa primary. Dean was, in some ways, too "real."

Although Iowans decided they simply wanted someone else for President, Dean was the right candidate to change American politics. Combining a "rabble-rouser" appeal and an innovative use of the Internet and grassroots activism, the Dean campaign managed to cure two "political cancers"—lack of interest in politics and domination by big money. Bush and Kerry have now incorporated grassroots efforts into their campaigns in ways that haven't been seen since before the 1960 election. And while Dean's success at raising lots of small contributions probably won't displace the importance of large donations anytime soon, it did contradict the average voter's claim of "I don't matter."

Perhaps Dean's most important contribution was whipping his party into shape. In Maslin's view, Dean "gave the Democratic Party its voice back." Indeed, Maslin argues that if the Democrats win this fall, they will owe a "huge debt" to Howard Dean and his failed campaign.

Paul Maslin has been a leading Democratic pollster for nearly twenty-five years, and has worked for Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, H. Ross Perot, Paul Simon, and Gray Davis.

We spoke on March 29.

—Elizabeth Shelburne

Why did you decide to write the piece?

This campaign really was an extraordinary experience, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that there really was an obligation to history and, more importantly, to the hundreds of thousands of people who had volunteered their time, written letters, and given money to Howard Dean, to explain the demise of the campaign. I felt I was in a unique position to explain to them one part of what really happened. I knew there'd be some criticism, but in this case I felt that the story was more important than whatever criticism I would get.

You say this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. How was this campaign different from others you've worked on? What was it like being on this roller-coaster ride that was the Dean campaign?

First of all, what we achieved was pretty extraordinary, even though ultimately we failed. Howard Dean gave the Democratic Party its voice back—I absolutely believe that. To start as an unknown underdog and by summer already be the frontrunner and by autumn become the dominant frontrunner? It was an extraordinary ride. But having said that, we had a crashing fall. Obviously when you're in the middle of something like that, you know it's momentous, it's important, it's fascinating, and it's frustrating as well. But it was a big thing from beginning to end.

Do you think others in the campaign felt the same way?

Everyone was very conscious of what we were doing at the time we were doing it—from the governor on down. You couldn't be part of this campaign and not be aware that we were making history. We were attacking the citadel. We were changing politics—maybe even revolutionizing politics—with the Internet and the grassroots activity. It ended up being a pretty quick and brutal demise. But that shouldn't in any way diminish the achievement.

Did you think at the time that you could revolutionize and also win?

Of course. This was not simply an exercise in protest candidacy. We were trying to win from day one, and the opportunity and the opening was there. This was actually what was so extraordinary about the campaign. Not only were we conscious of the changes we were all producing, but also we were conscious of the fact that it might have the best possible payoff, which was to gain a nomination, and perhaps elect a President.

What is the pollster's relationship with the candidate? Is it employee-employer, or is it necessary for the pollster to believe in the candidate?

I think people who are in politics shouldn't be mercenary about it. I can certainly say that in the vast majority of campaigns I've been involved in, I've believed in the candidate. I've felt I was working for a good person who would make a difference if he or she were elected. As a pollster you're part of a team, you're a colleague, you're working for a common ending, you're trying to win. Particularly in a presidential campaign, you become part of that team, and you have the highs and the lows that anyone would. However, a pollster should also be somewhat dispassionate. He should look analytically at the voters, at the data, at the situation, and try not to play favorites. You have to be an honest broker and tell a candidate or a campaign manager or the consultants or the various people on the staff, "Here's what's really happening."

But there's no point in doing this if you don't believe. At the very beginning, I didn't feel that Howard Dean had much of a chance to get elected President. But, boy, I liked what he was saying and I liked how he was saying it. I was attracted to his campaign. As the campaign went along we realized, "Man, we might win, too."

What was Dean's attitude toward polling?

As he said many times, he didn't tailor his positions based on polls. He believed what he believed, and he was going to say it. But he saw polling as a way of figuring out what the symptoms were before coming up with the cure. He was always very interested in hearing my analysis of a given situation. He wanted to take it all in so that he was fully aware of the decisions he'd be asked to make, or we'd be making.

Sometimes polls had nothing to do it. We never polled the decision to opt out of the campaign-finance system. We never asked people, "Do you think it's a good idea or a bad idea?"

You mention that Iowa is a very difficult place to poll. How accurate is polling? Does it reflect what's happening on the ground?

Well, the cliché is that polls are a snapshot. They may do a very good job of reflecting what's happening on the ground at a given moment, but things could change. Part of the art of polling is to try not only to determine what's happening in the here and now but also to project forward somewhat. You can do that more easily some times than others. But you try to figure out where a race may be going so you can start to map out your choices as you look ahead. And polls are the best way we know to monitor voter opinion at the time that you're most interested in it.

Polls generally are fairly accurate. In Iowa, though, you're looking at a caucus situation with low turnout where people are very conscious of the role they play—in the piece I commented that they're almost "professional voters." They're going to be circumspect or tell you, "Maybe I'm for such and such a candidate, but I don't feel that strongly about it. I might change my mind." That certainly sets up the kind of situation you saw actually take place in Iowa, where up until the last week of the campaign polls showed that Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean were battling it out to see who would win. They finished third and fourth respectively. That alone tells you how volatile that particular state happens to be.

Given what happened in Iowa with Dean, is it a good thing that Iowa is the determinant for the country?

You know, it's one of those things where Churchill's old line about democracy applies. "It's the worst system, except for all the others." I think you can bat this around a million different ways. I've yet to see anyone come up with a system that is better. The notion that a state like Iowa would be first and would allow these candidates to spend a substantial amount of time there and have a more substantive experience between the voters and the candidates than otherwise would have occurred is a good thing. The fact that it is Iowa over and over again and that those voters are taking full liberty with their role brings some problems with it. But I don't have a better idea.

You can't exactly tell Iowans, "Why don't you take a break this election and let some other state do it?" They're very prideful about their place in the universe, as we found out in our campaign. And they're not about to give up that spot.

I wanted to ask you about this idea that the Iowa voters have become professional. What exactly do you mean by that?

There is the joke that everybody in Iowa tells about how they expect to meet all the candidates: "I only met so and so three or four times, so how can I make a commitment yet?" Iowans are very conscious of two things—these aren't necessarily bad things, it just makes it hard to figure out what they're going to do. They're conscious of the fact that they don't have to decide until the last minute. It's not as if the circus is going to leave town prematurely. They know they can pick up their ticket at the very end if they choose to. John Edwards, for example, was a candidate who wasn't even a second choice. He was a third or a fourth choice for most voters for much of the campaign, and they didn't really think that they were going to support him until it got near the end. All of a sudden his qualities started to emerge, and boom! He gained momentum. That would be very difficult to achieve in most other states.

The Iowans are also very conscious of the fact that they're going first. For that reason, some of the skepticism they started to feel about Howard Dean became perhaps even more dramatic. Remember, at our last poll the Thursday before the Iowa caucus, more Iowans than not still thought that Dean was the likely winner of the Iowa caucus and the likely nominee. To some extent I think they went in there and said, "We can't just rubber stamp this thing. If we support this guy, he's going to be the nominee for sure." They looked real hard at Howard Dean, but in the end they saw some weaknesses. They saw some things that gave them some doubt. They backed away.

But why did Kerry win? Kerry won because Iowans said, "You know, we may be electing a President here. That may be our job. That's our task." And, on that score, Kerry was the guy who looked presidential, the guy who had the foreign-policy experience, since Clark wasn't in the race in Iowa. That's where Kerry got a lot of the support he gained in the end.

You write about these 3,500 volunteers, the Stormers, who came into Iowa to campaign for Dean. Can you describe what the relationship between the Iowans and the Stormers was like?

Iowans liked the fact that they were getting letters from people all around the country talking about Dean: from people in Vermont and elsewhere about how Dean had inspired them to get involved for the first time. All that was a plus for almost the entire campaign. At the end, the feeling of "I'm not so sure about Dean anymore for some certain reasons" happened to some voters.

Does that mean the voters disliked the people knocking on their doors with the orange hats? No, I don't think they disliked them. Did it mean, however, that just because Dean had more people on the street and more people out in the communities those last few days, that that was going to be some big salvation for us? At that point, it was sort of a polite "No, thank you. It doesn't work for us anymore that you came here from California or from Texas or from the East Coast supporting Howard Dean."

It's not the Stormers' fault. I admire these people. Anyone who was in Iowa can tell you that it was brutally cold that last weekend when they were going around door to door. And a whole lot of people uprooted their lives, took time away from their families or school or work to volunteer for Howard Dean. That's what I mean when I said I wanted to write this story, because a lot of them ended up shaking their heads and saying, "What happened? We got our clock cleaned. We thought we were unbeatable, unstoppable, that we had been doing something that no one had ever done before."

At our last poll, we were still the candidate that represented change. Dean was still the one bringing new energy and volunteers into the campaign. All those things were still true. At that point, it just didn't matter as much to the voters.

So does that indicate that the voters didn't necessarily want change or new energy?

No, no. I think they wanted somebody else to be President. It's as simple as that. If the Kerry campaign were to interpret all this as voters not wanting change or not appreciating the energy and volunteers that Dean brought into the effort, that would be a mistake. I just think the voters moved to a different set of criteria that was going to determine their choice. That's when Kerry and Edwards emerged.

In the piece, you write about realizing "the extent to which Howard Dean based his campaign on John Kerry's." What made you realize that this was the case?

Dean himself, and I think this was to his credit, by the way, felt all along that Kerry was his toughest opponent—even though we knew Gephardt was the obstacle in Iowa and even though there was a stretch when we thought that Clark was really a big threat. But overall, Kerry was always the one Dean was worried about. Dean and Kerry are both New Englanders, but cut from different cloth. They had stylistic differences, and they were going to rub each other, as rivals will. They each had to get past the other guy to get what they wanted. I think the rivalry was there from day one. Remember, early on in this campaign, Kerry was the presumed frontrunner.

You wrote that Dean didn't like Kerry. Why didn't he?

I think it was this rivalry. It's Duke versus North Carolina, although we're more like Gonzaga, I think. Obviously, now they've come to terms and that's what happens in politics. It's a good thing.

One of the things you talk about is the relationship between Dean and Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager. Could you talk a little about the dynamic of that relationship?

I think they were not particularly close. That doesn't mean they didn't like each other, but they didn't talk to each other a lot, or as regularly as one would expect in a campaign. And they each have their reasons for that. I think in retrospect we probably would all have been better served if they had talked to each other a little bit more, but that's just not the way it went.

On the other hand, they were very willing to be bold. One can't say that the only reason we were bold is because of Dean and his willingness to take courageous stands, or because of Trippi and his willingness to push us to places that, from an organizational standpoint, no campaign had ever been before. It really was the two of them. They were the two leaders of this effort. When they got on the same page we would generally make a very bold move.

You mention that in some ways it was a dysfunctional organization. Was it any different from other campaigns you've worked on, or is this kind of the way things are?

I think every presidential campaign, except perhaps for the ones that have no chance from the beginning, all end up at one time or another with petty squabbling. It's too big of a stage with too many people coming from too many different places with too many different ambitions not to have some problems. And our campaign in that respect was no different from any other.

But I would say that what made the dysfunction of this campaign somewhat unique was the fact that we were achieving so much success. I remember somebody from one of the other campaigns saying at one point, "You know, I really envy those guys. For them it is like Mardi Gras every day, and over here it's a funeral." It may have seemed like Mardi Gras, but deep down we were squabbling the whole time. Even when everything was going great there was a lot of fighting, a lot of jealousy, and a lot of resentment. There were a lot of things that weren't working very well. People were very conscious of that all along and were trying to deal with it, but we didn't deal with it very successfully. I'm not saying this is the biggest reason we lost, but the kind of mistakes and the difficulties we had are more apt to happen when you haven't been getting along famously as a family the whole way.

Regarding Dean's gubernatorial records and his decision not to release them, you described a very emotional scene in which Dean hangs his head and says, "I'd rather end the campaign than have the world see everything." What does that moment tell us about Dean and his motivations?

I feel it puts him in a very good light. It shows that this was not a guy who was looking in the mirror for twenty years and couching every decision he ever made in terms of "Maybe I'm going to run for President one day." Now, when they decided to seal the records, did his ambition come into play at some point? Sure. But it didn't when he was governor of Vermont.

So in that situation he was facing the fact of, "Here I am in a strong position to win the nomination and have a chance to be elected President." Part and parcel of that is that some people think the world will reveal everything about them. This is a human being. And he was showing a human reaction: "You know, I'm not sure I want everybody to see everything I ever said or did when I was governor, or every comment I made about somebody." I didn't feel like it was because there was some smoking gun there, although I don't know what's there.

It connects a little bit to the deal that the Deans made with their family and their private life. This is an extraordinary family. To the extent that we all saw Howard and Judy Dean together, we were kicking ourselves saying, "Man, what a couple they are. What a role model and a symbol they could be for the rest of the country." But he was resolute: "I don't want people to see. I didn't ask my family to be part of this. This is something I'm doing." That's the way he is, and I give him credit for being real even if there's a flaw there. I'd rather someone be real than for someone to always be covering and filling and bobbing and weaving the way that so many people in politics do. To me, that's what that moment is all about. Even though I disagree with the decision, I find that there's an admirable quality to it.

You mention this idea of being real. Do you think that, in some ways, maybe Dean was too real?

I think that's a fair statement. Maybe we threw too much on the table for people to really come to terms with him. Maybe when they vote for President they want some more typical boundaries in terms of what you say and who you are and how you conduct things. There's that Molly Ivins joke that you have to have a little Elvis in you. Dean had a heckuva lot of Elvis in him.

What is behind this question of electability? What is it that people see and what do they want?

Well, it's like that good old Potter Stewart line about pornography: "I'll know it when I see it." Everybody has a different notion. The weird thing was that up until the very, very end in Iowa, Dean was still the candidate that people thought could best beat Bush. This suggests that either electability was less important than people think and became more of an after-the-fact dimension that worked to Kerry's benefit because he was winning, or that people have a different, less literal, definition of electability.

I think that it's a little bit of both. When people say "electability," they don't mean it in the way that political consultants, reporters, and political junkies do. Those groups think of it as "so and so is from this state and because he has this background he'll be able to compete against Bush and pick up electoral votes in..." That's not the way the average voter thinks about it. The average voter thinks, "I want someone that I'm comfortable with, that will stand strong, that I can see on the same stage with Bush, that I can see in the White House itself." That was John Kerry's ace in the hole. About Dean people said, "He's feisty, he's a rabble-rouser, he said what someone had to say this time. I'm really glad he did that. He had the guts to stand up against the war. But, I'm not sure that he's the right guy to be President. I'm not sure I can envision him there. I don't know if he's the right one to lead the party." Some combination of those questions and those doubts set us back in the end.

I think electability is more of a gut feeling than anything else. Of course, I'm talking about Iowa specifically now. Once Kerry won Iowa and New Hampshire, it didn't much matter. We had designed our whole campaign on winning in Iowa and New Hampshire, because we thought it would create so much momentum and so much power that whoever did that would roll the field and win easily. And quickly. That's exactly what happened. Everybody had all these theories about Iowa and New Hampshire's importance—"maybe Iowa isn't all that important." Ask Wes Clark how important Iowa is. "Maybe neither one of them matters." As it turned out, Iowa and New Hampshire were what they always are: crucial.

As the campaign progressed, it became clear that Gore's endorsement didn't mean as much as you expected it might. Why was that?

I think that was one of the most fascinating parts of all this. Two things happened: First, Gore's own voters said they were less likely to vote for Dean because of the endorsement. That was just stunning to see. It took me a little while to figure it out. It was partly due to the fact that Gore's voters were in reality more Clinton's voters. It wasn't an absolute that Gore could sway them, because of who they were and why they were supporting Gore when 2000 rolled around. The other thing is that it's obvious that those Gore voters were the opposite of the Dean constituents in many respects. They were much older and less educated. It was the Bradley vote that lined up much more closely to Dean's vote. By the time December rolled around, the Gore voters had been given ample reason by Gephardt or other candidates to say, "You know, Dean's not my choice."

The second thing, I think, is the bigger reason—it gets back to what I was saying earlier. These voters were real regulars. They'd been to several caucuses before. They were very conscious of the whole process. From December on, these people were acutely aware that somebody—Gore, the media, somebody writing them a letter from out of town, Tom Harkin—was telling them it should be Dean. Up until the very end I think that was a positive. By the end, though, they started thinking, "No, don't tell me what to do. I'm free and independent here, and maybe I'm not going to go in Dean's direction. They became the epitome of the Iowa voter who wasn't going to be told what to do. It's a caucus, so you've got to go in there—into somebody's home or into a fire station, wherever the caucus is being held—and argue your case. I think that some of these voters simply weren't prepared to argue the case anymore, and they weren't going to use someone else's words to argue their case when they didn't feel it. So here we were with a big endorsement in the middle of December, and we knew it just didn't have much value. Not to mention that it put the target on Dean's back once and for all.

If you had to point to one moment or one day when the campaign fell apart, what would you point to?

We were in New Hampshire doing a focus group. I was moderating. They got the call in the middle of the focus group that this tape of Dean criticizing the Iowa caucuses years ago had surfaced and was being played on NBC. I think the same night we also had a problem with some Dean staffers who had infiltrated Kerry headquarters and were claiming that they were Kerry volunteers. It was just a bad night. We all walked out of there very depressed. We got Tom Harkin's endorsement the next day and thought we were saved. By Sunday, it all sort of fell apart again. That last week was just tough. That Iowa tape was a real body blow. We were nervous about it from day one, worried about the impact it might have. We knew it would get played heavily in Iowa. Without knowing all the details yet, we knew it was probably something Dean had said. In this case, that's just Howard Dean being Howard Dean. That's the "cracking the egg" phenomenon I pointed to in the story. That was probably a moment when we all thought, "the egg may have broken here." Trippi walked out of there saying, "We're not going to carry a single state." And he was right, except for Vermont.

How do you think the Dean campaign changed America?

I believe that if John Kerry wins, he will owe a huge debt of gratitude to Howard Dean. I think that Howard Dean gave this party its voice back. Some people might say he gave it its soul back. He showed people the way to become Democrats again, and how to speak out. Some people might argue, "Well, that would have happened anyway." I'm not sure it would have, and I'm not sure it would have in time. I think that by doing what he did, and by people responding the way they did, it shaped up the rest of the party. We had this whole new way of campaigning. I think the jury's out about it, but I don't think campaigning will ever be the same. Whether these people themselves, and the spirit the campaign created, whether that becomes the end product of this or if it morphs into something different—or if it becomes the model for campaigns of the future—I don't know. But I do know that we turned a corner in politics and I don't think we're ever going back. Howard Dean, and all the people that supported Howard Dean, took the party by the scruff of its neck, yanked it onto its feet, and said, "Let's fight."

When journalists couldn't quite see Howard Dean early on, I'd be upfront with them. I'd say, I've been in politics for twenty-five years. For all that time I've constantly heard: One, why can't we get more interest in politics? Why can't we get grassroots volunteers and turnout at the polls? Why does it seem to just dwindle away? Secondly, why is big money so powerful? Why do those people hold so much sway over this process? Here was a campaign that took both of these growing flaws, cancers even, in our politics, and for the first time started to change them. Here was a campaign where we actually had hundreds of thousands of volunteers who showed up for a campaign. They'd never been channeled into a campaign like this before. It's never happened. Here was a campaign where, in a weird way, we had to opt out of the federal matching system because we were so successful at doing what that system was designed to do. People were giving us money in small dollars.

I remember I called up Trippi one day. It must have been two days after the Fourth of July, right after we busted the numbers for second-quarter fund-raising. I said, "Joe, you know what this is, don't you? This isn't Jimmy Carter or George McGovern or Jerry Brown or Ross Perot or any of the analogies people are making. You know who this is?" He said, "Yeah, I know exactly who. It's Andrew Jackson." And he was right. If we'd really pulled this off, you'd have the equivalent of that scene when Andrew Jackson becomes President and the people just break down the fence at the White House and say, "This is our place." That's what we were trying to do. I think somewhere, somehow, someway, someone may do that. I think John Kerry could be a step in that direction.

If someone had said to me, You're going to raise $50 million dollars, and most of it is going to be from people giving you $200 bucks or less, I would have said, "You're nuts. Are you kidding me?" But that's what we did. As Joe would always say, It's not about us, it's about you. We didn't do this; you did it. Howard Dean set it in motion. He had the courage to stand up for his beliefs. But then America took over. That's the saddest thing you see at the end of this. It could have been so much more.

Are there any lessons from the Dean campaign that you think the Kerry campaign needs to learn?

I think they're going to be smart enough. They're doing a good job. They've got a tough campaign against Bush but it's winnable. The biggest thing, I would say, is to be resolute in what they're doing. Stick to their plan. I think they have got to go out and motivate people. Simply being a negative against Bush won't be enough, but I think they realize that. This will be partly a battle for the middle of the electorate, but partly a turnout battle. When you're appealing to your voters, you're going to have to both scare them and give them hope.

I think so far he's done well. It's a long, long campaign. Looking back to the primary, we were out there for too long. We knew that at the time, but what can you do? You can't decline the opportunity when it comes to you; you have to take it. I think the Bush attacks, in a long campaign, may seem stale by the end. I think that may rebound to Kerry's benefit. I think he just has to stick to what he believes in.

Do you think the former Dean supporters have gotten the message that Clinton was trying to impart at the steak fry that you mentioned: "First you fall in love; then you fall in line"?

It doesn't happen overnight. It's obviously in the process of taking place. Again, I think the party will be united; I think Kerry will be a strong candidate. None of us can predict how events will play out and how this election will turn out. But overall, there is an opportunity to change the course of the country and reverse these horrible Bush policies. Our guy didn't win, but we still have a very good choice. The vast, vast majority of people who supported Dean will not only vote for Kerry but also enthusiastically support him. They won't go back and retreat from whence they came and say, "Ah, this didn't matter in the end." There's, of course, the normal frustration you hear right after a campaign when your guy doesn't win. But in the end we're all going to be pretty strong and united behind Kerry.