It's called "the invisible primary." The presidential candidates compete for money and attention the year before the election. Whoever ends up raising the most money and placing first in the polls usually gets the nomination—but not without a fight.
The year is nearly over. Is there a winner on the horizon?
"I don't think we are pronouncing ourselves the presumptive nominee," former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said on November 8. "That's up to the voters, and we haven't had a single vote cast yet."
Nevertheless, two important events have made Dean the prohibitive favorite to win the invisible primary. He secured two major labor union endorsements—those of the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Those endorsements give him a claim of legitimacy with the Democratic Party's base.
The knock on Dean was that he was the yuppie candidate, the favorite son of educated upper-middle-class professionals, not the guy who appeals to blue-collar workers. Dean's issue is the war. Labor's issue is jobs. The script for this campaign said that labor already had its candidate in Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Gephardt was supposed to play the Walter Mondale role, while the part of the New Democrat—Gary Hart's role—would go to Dean.
What happened to the script?
Many old-line industrial unions have endorsed Gephardt, who has fought for them for years on trade. But labor is now divided. The unions that went for Dean include white-collar workers, immigrants, minorities, and low-wage service workers—in other words, people who work in offices and hospitals, not factories, and who are less affected by trade policy. Those unions are growing rapidly and see themselves as a movement.
Harold Meyerson, editor-at-large of The American Prospect and a longtime observer of labor politics, said, "The story is told that Gerald McEntee, the president of AFSCME, sent some of his staffers around just to check out the headquarters of the various candidates. They reported back, 'Boy,... the Dean headquarters is where you've got people working 24/7. That's really the place where you find the intensity.' And I think that mattered."
Moreover, Dean's signature issue, opposition to the war in Iraq, resonated with those unions. Dean told the SEIU, "$160 billion in Iraq. We could easily insure every man, woman, and child in the United States of America for that amount of money."
Organized labor is famously pragmatic. It wants to go with a winner. Does it think Dean can beat President Bush? Dean's people say their candidate has a quality that George McGovern and Michael Dukakis didn't have: toughness. If Bush hits Dean, Dean will hit back. Labor loves a fighter.
The second event that gives Dean the edge is his announcement on November 8 that he can raise the money he needs without taking public financing. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said the same thing about his own campaign a week later, but Kerry plans to rely on his own resources, including those he shares with his wife. Dean is propelled by small contributions: "We believe 2 million Americans will borrow $100 simply for the pleasure of sending this president back to Crawford, Texas."
Dean is now poised to be the Democrats' fundraising leader at the end the year. What about his poll standing? The national polls do not show Dean with a decisive lead, but they do show him at the top of the list. The mid-November Gallup Poll is typical: Dean, 17 percent; Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, 15 percent; retired Gen. Wesley Clark, 14 percent; Gephardt, 12 percent; and Kerry, 10 percent, among registered Democrats, with the other four candidates in single digits.
The race, then, looks like Dean versus "Stop Dean."
Gephardt is hoping to beat Dean in Iowa. But if Gephardt does win the Hawkeye State, as he did in 1988, where does he go from there? He's barely competing in New Hampshire. Kerry hopes to stop Dean in New Hampshire. But Dean has opened up a double-digit lead over him there.
That leaves the first Southern primary—South Carolina's, on February 3—as a potentially pivotal one. If Dean is stopped anywhere, it's likely to be in the South, despite—or perhaps because of—his clumsy effort to reach out to "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe said this month, "I believe that after February 3, we'll be down to maybe two or three candidates."
Who besides Dean? Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is making a bid to become the candidate of the South. "The last thing we need in the South," he told Dean, "is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do."
But Clark, a military leader, also looks good in South Carolina, and others can boast their own potential strengths. Lieberman is the most conservative Democrat in the race. Gephardt has the trade issue, a big deal in South Carolina. Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun have a base of support in the state's large black vote. And there's a huge bloc of undecided Democrats in South Carolina—36 percent in a late-October poll taken by the American Research Group.
If the other candidates split the South Carolina Democratic vote, Dean could eke out a plurality victory there. Dukakis did that in the 1988 Texas and Florida primaries. And that made him unstoppable for the Democratic nomination.