The Front-Runner’s Fall
The Dean implosion up close, from the vantage point of the candidate's pollster
The 2004 Democratic nomination was decided in Iowa. John Kerry's decision to focus his efforts in the Hawkeye State, with the support of a $6.4 million loan secured by his home, paid off handsomely: Kerry rallied in the final two weeks to upset Howard Dean, and surged to an easy win in New Hampshire just eight days later. The rest of the states then fell like dominoes.
"Inside the Dean Campaign" (April 8, 2004)
Howard Dean's political pollster talks about the campaign's extraordinary rise and crashing fall.
Dean and his chief strategists—Joe Trippi, the campaign manager; the media consultants Steve McMahon and Mark Squier; and I—were not surprised: winning Iowa had been the heart of our own victory plan. As was the case with so many other parts of our campaign, somebody stole our hopes along the way. This is the story of how it happened.
Polling in Iowa is both important and impossible. The vagaries of the caucus process make it very difficult to predict who might actually turn out on caucus night and to target those voters in a poll sample. The problems are compounded because Iowa voters have become "professional," and they know it is to their advantage to delay making up their minds.
Our first stab-in-the-dark-attempt was in late April of 2003, nine months before the caucuses. It confirmed some of Howard Dean's most fervent hopes about the state: he was actually in the lead among Iowans who had attended a caucus in the past and said they would definitely go this time. But it exposed a serious weakness: he was virtually unknown to many Iowans, particularly those inclined to support the 1988 Iowa winner, Richard Gephardt, of Missouri. The data also hinted that John Kerry could become a formidable candidate and that John Edwards was a direct threat to Dean. The overall results were these: Gephardt, 34 percent; Kerry, 16 percent; Joseph Lieberman, 15 percent; Dean, 10 percent; Edwards, six percent; others, four percent; undecided, 15 percent.
Some revealing additional findings came out of that first poll. One concerned the war in Iraq. Dean's support was 24 percent among those who strongly opposed the war; 13 percent among those who somewhat opposed it; and only six percent among those who favored it. Nearly three quarters of our sample opposed the war. The lesson for our planning purposes was that antiwar messages were among our least effective means of increasing Dean's support. We already had most of the core antiwar vote.
The second finding involved the dynamics among the candidates. It was clear even then that Kerry and Edwards posed a threat to us; support for the three tended to overlap. As I wrote in a memo just after the April poll, "In some ways Dean and Edwards are battling to be the 'New Face' ... just as Dean and Kerry have been battling over who is the 'True Democrat.'" The scenario was very different when it came to Joe Lieberman. We thought Lieberman had probably peaked in this first poll, where he was a strong third, and that his center-right run would fail badly among Iowa's liberal voters. Still, the votes Lieberman got would come mainly at the expense of candidates other than Howard Dean. We needed him to stay in the race in Iowa to sap others' support; unfortunately, he pulled out of the state in the fall.
The third finding had to do with biography and record. More than any other, this one showed how John Kerry might actually win. Not counting Lieberman, there were two Washington-establishment candidates in the race—Gephardt and Kerry. And there were two non-establishment, non-Washington candidates—Dean and Edwards (who is serving his first term in the Senate). Voters did not indicate a clear preference for one kind of candidate over the other. In the April poll we found that 36 percent of voters would support a candidate "whose main experience is in Washington, D.C., as a member of Congress," and 32 percent would support a candidate "whose main experience is outside of Washington, D.C., as a governor." But when voters were asked to make a choice based on job description and without knowing the candidates' names, the winner was a "lawyer/ congressional leader" (Gephardt) over a "medical doctor/governor" (Dean), by 49 to 18 percent. "Vietnam vet/ senator" also won over "medical doctor/governor," by 49 to 17 percent. In the actual Iowa-caucus vote, nine months later, Kerry and Gephardt together received 49 percent, and Dean 18 percent.
Fortunately from our point of view, when voters heard briefly about the qualifications of each candidate by name, including Dean's record in Vermont (providing health care, balancing budgets, and so on), Dean was the only candidate to gain support; he moved ahead of Lieberman and Kerry into a strong second against Gephardt. We knew we could probably never win an outright battle of the bios, but a fight about the candidates' achievements as elected officials looked promising. When we met to discuss these results, we debated the odds of defeating Gephardt in Iowa, and whether a second-place finish would be acceptable for us. It was a short debate; we decided to go for the win.
Since the campaign-finance reforms of the 1970s, primary campaigns have lived with the reality of what's known as "the cap." To be eligible for federal matching funds, candidates have to keep their spending below per-state limits that are set by a complex formula. In practice the cap has really mattered only in the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire—and in 2004 it would matter in a new way, because the McCain-Feingold law stiffened the penalties for exceeding the cap. Late in 2003 the Dean campaign decided to opt out of the public-financing system, which meant it could spend as much money as it wished. But before that decision, in the early summer of 2003, it had to calculate when it could start running expensive TV ads without using up cap money too soon.
We were acutely conscious that any sustained flight of television advertising—we were considering running ads for two weeks—was going to take a big bite out of our cap. I assumed that we would proceed carefully and not consider airing anything until after the Fourth of July. So imagine my surprise when Howard Dean burst into our Burlington headquarters on the afternoon of Friday, June 6, followed not long after by Joe Trippi, and announced that we were going to "go up" in Iowa.
"Kerry's planning to go up," Dean said. "We've got to be there first. We can't let him get the jump on us."
"I think we're going to do the focus groups after we run the ads," Trippi added. This turned the usual procedure on its head; for obvious reasons, ads are generally tested with focus groups before they air.
Two things have become clear in the many months since that moment in June. The first is the extent to which Howard Dean based his campaign on John Kerry's. He didn't like Kerry; he wanted to beat him; even when things were good, he worried about him. In many ways the two men were polar opposites—the small, feisty doctor, who talked in bursts and in common language and often without thinking; the tall, aloof soldier-turned-politician, who always tried to strike a lofty pose and seemed to consider every word he uttered. Both were born to privilege. Dean turned his back on it and fell into politics from the outside. Kerry, too, rejected its comforts, and fought in, and later protested against, a war that made his political career possible; but he never seemed to shed his patrician skin. On that June day, as far as Dean was concerned, the reason to "go up" in Iowa was to beat Kerry to the punch.
The second thing is that Howard Dean and Joe Trippi, although their work styles were such that they rarely spoke to each other (and they would ultimately part ways), were nevertheless on the exact same tactical page most of the time—if not always for the same reason. And when they were, bold action usually ensued.
By June of 2003 we understood our candidate and his message pretty well. Our ads would be thirty-second standups, Howard Dean talking straight to the camera and laying out what this race was all about: confronting George Bush, opposing the war in Iraq, providing health care to all Americans. The ads basically wrote themselves, and they clearly struck a chord (even though they were filmed in Vermont, and in the background featured an old Ford tractor instead of a John Deere, to which Iowans are partial). They helped fuel a national pro-Dean momentum that crested at the end of the month. Independent polls began to show us challenging Gephardt for the lead in Iowa, months before we had even hoped to do so. But they came with a price—one that far exceeded the $300,000 we spent on them.
We learned dangerous lessons from those ads: that we could work fast, with virtually no preparation; that it paid to be bold; and that we could spend money at a time that no sane campaign ever would or ever had. In late August, after Dean had completed a triumphant national tour, Trippi decided to push more chips onto the table and persuaded us to spend a million dollars on advertising in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin. Jeani Murray, our Iowa state director, had a simple and blunt reaction: "And nothing for Iowa?"
Howard Dean's momentum continued through the summer, despite the initial skepticism of the Democratic establishment. The first obvious setback came in mid-September, when General Wesley Clark entered the race.
It would be hard to overstate the initial shock to our system when Wesley Clark entered the race. Two views prevailed about Clark. The Dean campaign saw him as a real threat: the only other guy to share our outsider message who could raise money and run a national effort. To most D.C. types—the same people who had failed to understand or predict our ascendancy—he was a rookie; he would make mistakes and bomb out eventually. Both views proved to be right. But in mid-September Clark was nothing but trouble for us; with his campaign diverting money, our fundraising slowed for the first time. This is relative: we still raised a record amount in the third quarter of 2003—nearly $15 million. But it might have been three or four million more without Clark. Endorsements were put on hold, and our aura of invincibility was dimmed, at least for a time.
A few days before Clark was expected to make his announcement, the other Democratic hopefuls gathered in Indianola, Iowa, for the Steak Fry—an annual political get-together hosted by Iowa's Senator Tom Harkin, who had conducted voter forums with each of the candidates over the past several months. Former President Bill Clinton, the star attraction, praised virtually every candidate in the field but then advised the crowd, which consisted almost entirely of rabid supporters of one candidate or another, that although first they'd "fall in love," ultimately they must "fall in line." It was hard to mistake that for anything other than a shot across our bow—and in our minds it clearly indicated that Clinton was, as the rumor mill suggested, secretly pushing for General Clark. Trippi weighed in with his own concern a few days after the Steak Fry, which he had attended. "It's not right in Iowa," he said. "I could feel it there. It's not right."
Despite Trippi's fears, our poll numbers held in Iowa through September: we now had a four-to-six-point lead over Dick Gephardt, with John Kerry still a solid third but essentially motionless, and with John Edwards mired in single digits. On September 24 and 25, when it was not clear whether Clark would be competing in the Iowa caucuses (ultimately he did not), we conducted a new poll that in its focus on comparing the candidates revealed more of the emerging contours of the race. Dean held solid advantages over his competitors when it came to who represented change, who would stand up to Bush, and who was bringing new energy and volunteers into politics.
Despite these strengths, the results revealed some bad signs about where the race was going. First, although Dean led the field on who would best stand up to Bush, a quarter of likely caucus-goers thought all the candidates would stand up to him equally. To us, this suggested that our message was being borrowed and diffused. Second, 13 percent thought Kerry was the candidate best described as having "opposed the war," despite his vote in favor of it. His circuitous statements on that subject may not have been helping him in New Hampshire, where Dean's lead was increasing, or with media insiders, but plenty of Iowans still thought he was against the war.
The third finding that raised a red flag was the so-called "electability" question: Dean's lead was narrower here, and Kerry was already in second place. Kerry's hope, it seemed at the time, was that the discussion would swing back to foreign policy, where his more "presidential" qualities could come into play.
Joe Trippi was the principal force in pushing the campaign to unprecedented heights of grassroots activism and small-donor fundraising. His brilliance was obvious to all, and it wasn't limited to his innovative use of the Internet, which defined so much of the Dean campaign. He was also a visionary of the highest order, able to see both the opportunities and the risks with which this campaign was constantly presented. Yet he was a poor manager—and in fact he was never even given a full opportunity to work as one, because Dean decided early that Trippi should not have budgetary authority. Joe was an irascible leader who rarely understood the need to buck up those around him when things went wrong; instead he either lashed out at the offender, usually with good cause, or often retreated to his corner office and behind his computer, giving off such strong vibrations of doom and darkness that even the most trusted and loyal members of his staff did not dare disturb him. Trippi was the one person other than Dean—and at times the only person, including Dean—who could be counted on to stay on message, yet he so jealously guarded his press contacts and attention that even his closest associates were wary of talking to the media for fear of alienating him. He believed passionately in Howard Dean's message, yet he allowed himself to become almost a rival messenger; he came to be viewed, by supporters and detractors alike, as the true core of the campaign, more so even than the candidate himself.
It should have been no surprise that normal petty jealousies and staff rivalries, when combined with a full dose of Trippi, led to a very dysfunctional organization. (Trippi would often joke, "If these other campaigns only knew what this campaign is really like ...") Slights, real and imagined, bred accusations that were hurled back and forth in our Burlington office or in hushed phone conversations around the country. Joe threatened to leave more than once, predicting disaster all along; those who were not fans of his threatened on several occasions to have Dean replace him. At one point he overturned a desk in rage in front of his personal assistant, Kristen Morgante, who not surprisingly walked out of the office and didn't return until two days later, after Trippi had apologized. Another characteristic outburst occurred in a hotel in Des Moines, when Dean balked at Trippi's idea of putting out a pamphlet aping Thomas Paine's Common Sense because he had been given only a couple of days to review it before the printing deadline. Trippi blamed Kate O'Connor, Dean's closest aide, for the holdup; he left the candidate's suite, threw his cell phone down the corridor, and screamed, "That bitch!"
Through it all, even on the good days, Joe would look at us with that intense and very dark glare of his and ask, "What about Iowa?" He had campaigned in the state at least three times before: as a young staffer for Ted Kennedy in his unsuccessful primary effort against Jimmy Carter, in 1980; as the Iowa director for Walter Mondale, in 1984; and as Dick Gephardt's deputy campaign manager, in 1988. He had certain ideas about how to win the caucuses and was increasingly frustrated that the Iowa staff seemed to be carrying out none of them. "You need a person running each county who is in that county, no matter how small it is," he said. "This campaign has a bunch of kids in regional headquarters that never go out into the counties. You need a precinct captain for every one of the nearly two thousand precincts. Jeani doesn't believe in that. I keep asking, and they can't tell me how many we have. And you need a hard count of ones [political parlance for strong supporters who have said they'll back the candidate]—that's what Mondale did. That's what Gephardt did, and he's doing it again. Our campaign doesn't know how many ones it has, and I keep asking for it!"
Life as the front-runner was never comfortable for Howard Dean. He knew that by declaring war on the party and its establishment for their failure to oppose Bush strongly enough, he was guaranteeing a vicious and constant response. He complained many times about Kerry's attacks, and occasionally about Lieberman's, but he always felt that Gephardt would be different. "I supported Dick in 1988," he said to me one day on the trail. "Worked for him. He may criticize me on the issues, but it'll never get personal." I disagreed, since I had already seen Gephardt in action against a candidate standing in his way. (I had polled for Paul Simon, whom Gephardt narrowly defeated in Iowa in 1988.)
By October, Dean started to understand. He was becoming, as he described it in the campaign's final weeks, a "pincushion." Kerry would attack him for his desire to repeal all the Bush tax cuts, even those aimed at the middle class. So would Lieberman—and Mr. Moderate would then launch into a diatribe against Dean's views on foreign policy and national security. In one speech Lieberman said that Howard Dean was giving the Democratic Party a "ticket to nowhere." Al Sharpton would attack from his post as the self-proclaimed representative of black America, looking for any and all evidence that Dean didn't know or understand "his" people. John Edwards would do the same from the South—which meant that when Dean talked about wanting the support of all voters, including the guys with Confederate-flag decals on their pickup trucks, he gave both Sharpton and Edwards a chance to be aggrieved.
But the most serious damage was coming from Dick Gephardt and his labor minions in Iowa, who relentlessly attacked Dean for his supposed weakness on Medicare and Social Security and his prior support of NAFTA. Although Dean's personal ratings remained strong, the Gephardt barrage took its toll. When, on October 29, we completed the first night of a new poll, Gephardt had retaken the lead in Iowa (by an impressive margin) for the first time in more than three months.
We had decided to test two messages in that poll. One stressed the story of the campaign and its reliance on small givers—in essence arguing that Dean would be uniquely able to break the power of special interests. It produced a good but hardly overwhelming response. The other likened Bush's handling of the economy to the practices of Enron—in both cases the rich and powerful made off with the money while ordinary people got screwed. This message tested much better.
The day after that first night of polling, Dean reached me as I was driving south from Washington with my wife and two daughters to visit my son at the University of Virginia. In a typically incongruous campaign moment, as our car hurtled through scenes of glorious fall foliage, Dean asked me what we intended to do to turn Iowa around. I described to him the two messages we were testing. His response was immediate: "O-kaaaay. What about the war?" I said we could add a question or two about Gephardt's vote to support Bush's recent request for $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan. So then, as my wife explained disapprovingly to our eleven-year-old that "this is how those horrible negative ads are made," I dictated to my office a new question to insert into the second night of polling.
The result was crystal clear: 56 percent of Iowans took our view on the war, and only 35 percent agreed with Gephardt. The ad Steve McMahon and Mark Squier produced the following week had just the right tone to be deadly effective: as the screen showed a picture of Gephardt in the White House Rose Garden with Bush and other congressional leaders, a female announcer declared, "October 2002—Dick Gephardt agrees to co-author the Iraq War resolution, giving George Bush the authority to go to war"; the spot switched soon after to Dean's saying "I opposed the war in Iraq and I'm against spending another $87 billion there." We didn't need a focus group to tell us this would be a devastating ad. But we needed to wait before running it, because the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines was slated for the upcoming weekend, with Hillary Clinton as the emcee. We didn't want to strike the first negative blow of the campaign before such a high-profile event.
Our ad began to air the week following that dinner, on Monday, November 17. For several days Gephardt's campaign didn't respond, and when it did, its ad was confusing. It tried to allege that Dean had actually supported Bush's recent funding request—and that he had promised not to attack other candidates for backing it. This kind of debate about the war was just what the doctor had ordered. We shot back into the lead. In this poll nearly 60 percent of Iowans said Dean was the candidate who could best be described as opposing the war, and 40 percent fingered Gephardt as the candidate who could best be described as favoring it.
Once again, we thought we had learned an important lesson: the war could bail us out of trouble. But we failed to notice a big problem with our singling out Gephardt as the pro-war candidate: almost no Iowans were thinking of Kerry and Edwards as candidates who had supported the war, even though both had supported the original resolution.
All of us involved in the Dean campaign made mistakes, for sure. But to be fair, our candidate's erratic judgment, loose tongue, and overall stubbornness wore our spirits down. He refused to be scripted, to be disciplined, or to discipline himself, in his remarks about everything from the Red Sox and the Yankees to Middle Eastern diplomacy. I later likened it all to repeatedly tapping an egg against the edge of a kitchen counter: eventually the egg would break. That's what happened in Iowa.
Several times during the campaign we had attempted to change the cast of characters accompanying Dean, so someone could help shield him from increasingly tough or persistent media questioning or, at least, recognize and fix problems on the spot. We desperately needed an "adult" (preferably one the candidate knew and respected) 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 for the job.
But the bigger problem was Dean himself—the enemies he had made and the process that had made him a target. The other campaigns' responses to our success intensified in the fall. At one point Gephardt's campaign created a Web site, Deanfacts.com, reserved for attacks on Dean's record. John Kerry chafed at all the media attention we were getting and once muttered in frustration, "Dean. Dean. Dean. Dean. Dean," not realizing he was near a live mike.
What did we expect? Our candidate was the front-runner. But then we made ourselves more vulnerable with our handling of his gubernatorial records.
Before his run for President, Dean had decided to seal some of his records for ten years, and when he was asked about it in Vermont, in January of 2003, he made a curious statement. Although he later claimed that he had been speaking in jest, he basically admitted that he had wanted to avoid potential embarrassment in some future race. This campaign prided itself on trying to make American politics more transparent and accessible, and Dean had railed at the secret energy commission chaired by Dick Cheney—and yet had sealed his records, seemingly for the sake of personal ambition.
By early December the press was ready to pounce. Dean had changed his tactic, basically trying to go mano a mano with another former governor. "I'll unseal mine," he said, "if he will unseal his." The problem was that technically Bush's Texas gubernatorial records were "open," even though in practice getting access to them would be time-consuming. Within a day the campaign staff realized that our position was untenable. We tried to talk a reluctant Dean into authorizing a full release, hopeful that any damaging revelations might still be months away. We were hoping, at any rate, that they would come out after Iowa and New Hampshire.
At first Dean seemed receptive, and even seemed to suggest a forthcoming full disclosure to the media, but he first wanted to discuss the issue with us in person. On Wednesday, December 3, in the campaign's ratty Burlington conference room, Dean met with about fifteen of his senior campaign staffers and top consultants. I felt that failing to release the records would be more damaging than anything the records might contain. It would fly in the face of the campaign's whole message of openness and change, and would reveal Dean as just another politician. But others, who had known him longer, were more circumspect. They were particularly concerned about the weekly memos Dean was given as governor, on which he would write comments. Nobody could remember a precise example, but all, including Dean himself, thought that he had probably insulted many major political players in Vermont in those comments, including Democrats and Democratic-leaning interest groups.
Dean was increasingly uncomfortable with the discussion, and I felt some regret for pressing so hard when, in the end, he lowered his head and said to us all, but mostly to himself, "I'd rather end the campaign than have the world see everything." Seldom have I heard a candidate so open about his feelings (one of Dean's refreshing qualities); more seldom still have I seen someone on the brink of political success be so conflicted about it. To this day I am convinced that no "smoking gun" exists in those records. What is probably there is an accumulation of cuts from a man who routinely made acidic or even profane comments to all around him, in conversation and in writing.
I felt worse half an hour later, when—after Dean had left the headquarters having decided not to release the records—Trippi called McMahon, Squier, and me into his office. He shut the door and said in a compassionate voice, rare for him, "He just lost it in here. He basically told me that he never thought he'd be in this position. Never thought he could ever win. Never thought it would come to all this. He was just about in tears, and for once, I really feel for him. He said, 'I don't know why I say the things I do.' He ain't gonna release the records, even if it costs us everything."
On December 9 Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean. The next Saturday, December 13, Saddam Hussein was captured near Tikrit. The former seemed like a huge boost for Dean's prospects: a day later Dean rose to a double-digit lead in Iowa. But ultimately both events were setbacks.
Dean was already scheduled to give a foreign-policy address in Los Angeles the Monday after Saddam's capture. In a rare moment when he, the policy staff, Trippi, and the consultants agreed that playing "front-runner" was smart, he had planned to give a reassuring speech. He would not back down from his opposition to the war in Iraq, but he would remind the media and the foreign-policy establishment that he had supported the 1991 Gulf War, the war in Kosovo, and the war in Afghanistan. The implied message was that although his view of the world differed greatly from Bush's, he was very much in the mainstream of foreign-policy thinking. A brief section was added to address the news of the day. Then, as he was being driven to the speech, Dean inserted an entirely new line: "The capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer."
The best thing about Howard Dean is his willingness to say what he thinks and stand his ground. There is no question in my mind—and, as it turns out, most Democrats' minds—that his statement was dead on. But to hear our opponents and the press tell it, Dean had just told the American people that two plus two equals sixty-seven. The reaction hurt us immediately in Iowa.
We polled previous caucus attendees just after the endorsement, and three days after Saddam's capture we polled again. I was stunned to find that our lead had been sliced to just three points, with Kerry now in second place. Dean's favorability rating had also taken a hit for the first time in the campaign.
|Favorability Ratings (1-100 scale)|
|Candidate||Dec. 9-10||Dec. 16-18|
In one week Dean's rating had dropped from No. 1 among the four major candidates to No. 3. Nearly six points may not seem like much, but it was the single biggest weekly drop we ever found for any candidate in this race. And for the first time John Kerry's rating was now the highest, by a slim margin. Perhaps most ominous, we had measured Al Gore's favorability rating at the time of the endorsement and a week later; it fell from 61.4 to 58.9. Was there a backlash against Gore himself, perhaps because the media were giving full attention to his failure to make even a heads-up call to Lieberman, his former running mate? Probably so. But there was something else afoot—something that, it is now clear, was a portent.
In the eyes of the media Gore's endorsement had branded Dean as the man to beat. Indeed, from that point on a majority of likely caucus-goers felt that Dean would probably win the caucuses and go on to capture the nomination. But in one important subgroup of Iowans a plurality said that Gore's endorsement made them less likely to support Dean. This group was made up of Gore's own supporters in the 2000 caucuses. I did a double take when I saw those results, as did everyone I told about them. They were entirely counterintuitive, but further review revealed their supporting logic.
So a week after Gore's endorsement—the most stunning event in a consistently surprising campaign, and an event that seemed to many to lock up the nomination for Dean—we were faced with the realization that it had little if any value.
On Thursday, January 8, the Dean campaign was rocked by the news that NBC was airing a videotape of its candidate, as a guest commentator on a Canadian public-affairs program several years earlier, criticizing the Iowa caucuses. The tape dominated Iowa news coverage through the following weekend, even overshadowing Dean's endorsement by the popular Tom Harkin. Then, that Sunday, January 11, came three negative developments: the state's dominant newspaper, The Des Moines Register, endorsed John Edwards; Dean shouted down a Republican heckler at a campaign event; and, exhausted and unbriefed, Dean was forced to admit, under fire from Al Sharpton, that he had never hired an African-American to a cabinet post during his time as the governor of Vermont.
Our poll that Sunday night, a week before the caucuses, showed the expected results: Dean had now fallen into a virtual three-way tie with Kerry and Gephardt, and Edwards was riding close on our heels. Our favorability rating had plummeted to a new low, just as those of Kerry and Edwards had started to rise, in part because they were liberally borrowing our message of populism and empowerment. I had seen this movie before: after weeks of declining support, Paul Simon had received the Register's endorsement and surged in the final week before the 1988 Iowa caucuses, and had nearly caught Gephardt. I began to think that Edwards might win and Dean might finish third.
Dean, Trippi, and our strategic team huddled on the telephone early the next morning and made a quick decision: we needed to put out a negative ad about Gephardt and Iraq again, this time with pictures of Kerry and Edwards tacked on, in an attempt to associate them with a pro-war position. We never tested this ad. We never even had an extensive discussion about the pros and cons of running it. It was the biggest mistake we could have made, and it kept me up at night for weeks afterward. Someone—and why not I?—should have thought through the precise implications of the ad copy and its likely impact on the entire field.
When we ran the ad, it barely brushed the intended targets—Kerry and Edwards—but delivered a devastating blow to Gephardt. Quite naturally, he fought back—with a "kitchen sink" negative ad on us, which ran midweek. That ad, which attacked Dean's views on Medicare and Social Security, snuffed out what little chance we had left at victory—Dean and Gephardt were both increasingly seen by Iowans as running negative campaigns. The exchange, called off within days by both sides, nevertheless sent us hurtling to a crushing defeat instead of a narrow loss that we should have been able to endure. Had the vote been closer, I believe, there would have been no "I have a scream" speech on caucus night. All the habits we had learned so early in this race—work fast, use Iraq, be aggressive—were coming back to haunt us.
Once the Dean campaign opted out of public financing and was free to spend as much as it chose in Iowa, Joe Trippi endorsed a "flood the zone" strategy. The campaign would keep up its expensive TV-advertising schedule. But flooding the zone also meant unleashing paid staff members, volunteers, and every other possible organizational tool to rouse the likely caucus-goers in Iowa. A final stage of this effort brought in thousands of out-of-state volunteers to make phone calls, stand on street corners, and go door-to-door across the state.
I've long felt that campaigns are akin to high-altitude climbing. You make your plans in the fresh, oxygen-filled air of sea level. You gradually journey up, working as a team, dealing with each challenge as it presents itself. But in a campaign's final days, when the key decisions must be made, you're in the equivalent of the death zone, harried and short of time and breath. If you do the wrong thing, the consequences are fatal. Our team was a good one, and we generally worked well together. Howard Dean had the right temperament to make truly tough decisions. He listened carefully, asked questions, and was decisive when he needed to be. But the experience of the climb had worn us all down by the time of the Iowa vote. The summit was receding into the clouds.
Thirty-five hundred mostly young out-of-state Dean supporters descended on Iowa for what the Iowa campaign staff had billed as the "Perfect Storm." Iowans had applauded Dean throughout the campaign for his ability to bring new energy and volunteers to the political process—and the Stormers, as we called them, seemed like a perfect example. People we'd polled had told us that they'd been impressed by the letters out-of-staters had written them about Dean. But now things seemed to be changing.
The Stormers ventured out into the bitter cold of that last weekend, wearing their trademark orange hats, and the Iowans politely said no, thank you. One can certainly speculate that we went deep into overkill. A woman in a focus group had told us that she was sick of being called again and again by Deaniacs; multiply her by thousands. One can also assume that Iowans, stubborn to the end, were tired of being told it "must" be Dean—whether by the news media or Al Gore or Tom Harkin or a bunch of kids in orange hats. Surely many voters had simply turned the wheel beyond Dean to somebody they considered a more solid possible President.
The entrance polls on caucus night were harsh and decisive: we would finish a poor third to Kerry and Edwards. We met Dean at his new campaign bus to discuss the events to follow. Dean was in no mood to linger in Iowa. A late flight awaited to what he hoped would be a more welcoming venue, in New Hampshire, but first he had to endure the necessary parade of network interviewers, all wanting him to tell them what went wrong.
We tried hard to cheer him up, and we explained the importance of seeming confident in those interviews. He did beautifully in each of them. But nobody had bothered to write up a concession speech or even a few lines to use when he faced the crowd waiting in the Val Air Ballroom, many of them Stormers. It was as if we were all in shock, and didn't even consider the importance of his first election-night appearance in front of a national television audience. A week later, in New Hampshire, we and he wouldn't make that mistake. But by then it was too late. Dean needed an immediate release that night in Iowa—a release from the pounding, the pressure, and the poor finish.
It came in the form of that famous speech—and somehow it was fitting that in this roller-coaster ride of a campaign, which Joe Trippi and Howard Dean had both bragged was a fifty-state campaign, the candidate's doom would consist simply of the shouted words "South Carolina" ... "Arizona" ... "New Mexico" ... "Michigan," ending with The Scream.
A few weeks after Iowa, Dean went to Madison, Wisconsin, my home town, for a last-ditch effort in the Wisconsin primary. On the day he arrived, he was surprisingly upbeat, almost jovial—in part because his wife, Judy, accompanied him, and in part because he had returned to Vermont the night before to watch his son's high school hockey team win 5-0. I felt, though, that his mood stemmed more from his coming to terms with the extraordinary experience of his extraordinary campaign, despite its quick and brutal demise. As he left his final event to head to the airport, we spotted a kid with an orange hat. "Do you think it could be ...?" I wondered out loud—and sure enough, as the kid turned toward us we saw the words THE PERFECT STORM emblazoned on his hat.
I thought Dean might have the van stop so he could greet his supporter. But he just looked at him for a few seconds and then turned back to us and said, "They may have fucked up Iowa, but they sure changed America." We all laughed, particularly Dean himself, still happy from his day with Judy. But I immediately realized, as I think he did too, that he could just as easily have said "we" instead of "they."