DES MOINES—The campaign in Iowa turned around in mid-December, a month before the caucuses. Among caucus participants who had made up their minds before then, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean did best, with 32 percent of the vote, according to the network entrance poll conducted by Edison/Mitofsky Research. But among those who decided within the past month, Dean's support fell by almost half, to 16 percent, while Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina moved into the lead.
What changed the contest's dynamics? It wasn't anything in Iowa. Rather, it was something that happened 6,000 miles away: Saddam Hussein was captured. With that, much of the anger fueling the anti-war issue diminished, and so did Dean's support.
Iowa caucus participants remained highly critical of the war in Iraq. Three-quarters of them said they disapproved of the U.S. decision to go to war. But among those critical of the war, Kerry was the leading vote-getter, with 34 percent, followed by Edwards and Dean, tied at 24 percent.
Opposition to the war ignited the Dean campaign. Why didn't anti-war voters deliver for him? Because the war was not the driving issue for most Iowa voters, even those critical of the war. Asked what issue most determined their choice of candidate, Iowa Democrats gave top priority to jobs (29 percent) and health care (28 percent), both way above the war in Iraq (14 percent).
Most caucus-goers were first-timers, 55 percent of the total. But Dean wasn't the lure. First-timers went for Kerry (36 percent) and Edwards (24 percent) over Dean (22 percent). Young caucus-goers didn't flock to Dean, either. He ran second to Kerry among those under age 30.
Dean's Internet army? A fizzle. Forty percent of Iowa caucus participants described themselves as making regular use of the Internet to get news and information about the campaign. Yet this group voted for Kerry (33 percent) over Dean (24 percent).
Dean insists he is not a conventional liberal. His moderate views on fiscal issues do give him some claim to the "moderate" label. Nevertheless, Dean's support on caucus night was heavily tilted to the left. While Democrats who described themselves as "moderate" or "somewhat liberal" went for Kerry and Edwards, Dean dominated the vote among those who described themselves as "very liberal." Dean was caught in a trap of his own devising: The anti-war issue both defined and limited his support. He got votes only from those to whom the war was the paramount concern.
Iowa turned out to be the last hurrah for Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. He focused on the issues that caucus-goers cared most about—jobs and health care. But the other three major candidates received more support than he did from caucus participants who cited those concerns.
The union vote must be a bitter disappointment for Gephardt. Labor union members may sing "Solidarity Forever," but there was little solidarity among them in Iowa. Union households went 29 percent for Kerry, 22 percent each for Edwards and Gephardt, and 19 percent for Dean. (Kerry attracted a substantial following among volunteer firefighters.)
Seniors also deserted Gephardt, despite his vocal commitment to protecting Medicare. In fact, the cornerstone of Kerry's victory turned out to be the voters of the Greatest Generation, as World War II-era Americans have been labeled. Kerry is a Vietnam War hero, and he has made his military record a major theme of his campaign. Men whose lives he had saved stumped with him in Iowa and appeared in his ads. But he doesn't lean on his military background just to illustrate his character. He uses it also to demonstrate his credibility as someone who can stand up to President Bush on national security.
Voters 65 and older include a lot of veterans and veterans' relatives. They delivered big-time for Kerry—43 percent. Only 23 percent chose Edwards, while 17 percent were for Gephardt and just 15 percent were for Dean.
Kerry and Edwards showcased qualities that contrasted with Dean's weaknesses. Dean was seen as the angry leader of negative causes—anti-Bush, anti-war. And Edwards became the positive, optimistic alternative. Edwards got his strongest support from caucus-goers—most notably, women—who said they were looking for a candidate who "cares about people like me." Dean's strength was among those looking for a candidate who "takes strong stands on the issues."
Another Dean weakness was his lack of national and international experience. That was Kerry's strength. Iowa caucus-goers looking for a candidate who "has the right experience" went 71 percent for Kerry.
"Electability" also played a major role in Iowa. That's rare. Normally, voters choose a candidate they agree with and assume that that makes the candidate electable. But a lot of Iowa Democrats said they were looking for someone who could defeat Bush. They saw Kerry and Edwards as the most electable Democrats. Even the endorsements by former Vice President Gore, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa failed to give Dean credibility on the issue of electability. Only 1 percent of caucus-goers cited endorsements as a reason for their vote.
In the end, Iowa Democrats did not participate in the caucuses to make a statement. They participated to pick a winner.
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