Marco Rubio’s last minute surge in Iowa has a lot in common with John Kerry’s last minute surge to victory in Iowa in 2004. Like Rubio, Kerry was an early frontrunner. Like Rubio, Kerry underperformed all fall as an anti-establishment candidate (Howard Dean) came from nowhere to dominate the field. Like Rubio, Kerry benefitted in the closing weeks from a nasty battle between the two Iowa frontrunners (Dean and Richard Gephardt). Like Rubio, Kerry counterpunched in those final weeks by stressing his electability. Among the Iowans who called electability “crucial” to their vote, Kerry beat Dean by 16 points. Among the Iowans who said they cared most about which candidate could “win in November,” Rubio beat Trump by 18.
For party insiders, Kerry’s success proved that Democratic voters had come to their senses; that Dean’s moment had come and gone. But that wasn’t right. Kerry had beaten Dean not by challenging the Vermont governor’s anti-war message but by pledging to more effectively sell it. In October, Kerry voted against a bill to fund the Iraq war he had once voted to authorize and “began to sound more and more like an antiwar candidate.” One poll found that 13 percent of Iowa voters considered Kerry the candidate best described as having “opposed the war.” As Dean’s pollster would later lament, Kerry was “liberally borrowing our message.”