Analysis: Democrats 2004, an early line

By PATRICK REDDY  |  June 3, 2003 at 12:37 PM
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Although President Bush soared to approval rating approaching 70 percent after the military victory in Iraq, there is no shortage of Democrats who would love to run against him in 2004.

The Democrats will be facing an uphill fight if the stock market and economy recover. But the Democrats itching to take on the president must recall 1991 when the first President Bush surged to 90 percent in the polls after the first Persian Gulf War only to slide out of office with 37 percent in 1992.

Will history repeat itself? Polls before and after the Iraq War have generally shown this President Bush's "re-elect" numbers to be between 48 percent and 52 percent. That's solid, but not spectacular.

Nine candidates have already announced an intention to seek the 2004 Democratic Party presidential nomination, and more may be on the way: former NATO commander Wesley Clark and Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., may also run. This is the largest field since 1976, when the reforms that made the primary system decisive were new and attracted over a dozen challengers. (Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere to win that race).

As always with a field this large, there are four or five established favorites, a few "dark horses" and several long shots. In their first debate the Democratic candidates, for the most part, came off as capable and reasonable, who could win next year if the Bush White House stumbles.

As of spring 2003, "undecided/don't know" has led most polls. A recent poll showed that 4 percent of Democrats said they were paying "close attention" thus far. No one has consistently polled more than 20 percent since Al Gore dropped out last December and no candidate is currently polling more than 30 percent in any sub-group. The race is wide open and tough to predict – a gaffe, a scandal or a slick TV ad could tip the balance.

We can say this though: anyone who wins two of the first three contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina (respectively) will be the 2004 Democratic candidate, barring health problems or a scandal.

In alphabetical order, here's a brief rundown of the Democratic field (with their standings in the last two Gallup polls averaged):

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (5 percent). The first medical doctor to make a serious run for the presidency, Dean is firing up grassroots liberals with red-meat speeches attacking President Bush's Iraq policy and promising universal health care. A good comparison can be made to George McGovern in 1972 who capitalized on liberal opposition to Vietnam to win the 1972 Democratic nod. Dean should do well in the early New England contests, but will have to win big states to prove his electabilty. After all, McGovern lost by the greatest popular vote margin ever.

Sen. John Edwards from North Carolina (7 percent) is running as a freshman Senator, trying to revive the Democratic tradition of Southern populism. A wealthy and charismatic former trial lawyer, Edwards hopes to follow the footsteps of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. (The last three Democratic presidents were all Southerners). Edwards appears to have tremendous natural talent, but his relative youth may be a handicap. He has raised more than $10 million, mostly from fellow lawyers, and represents a key swing state. He may be aiming for the old goal of Southern politics: run the first time to become known, the second time to win. If Edwards wins most of the Southern primaries in February and March, he'll almost certainly be on next year's ticket.

Rep. Richard Gephardt from Missouri (18 percent) ran in 1988 and finished fourth in the primaries. This time, he's run a much better race. Gephardt won Iowa in 1988 and is favored to do so again. He also has a strong base among industrial unions. The main question facing his quest is whether he can widen his appeal to liberals on the East and West coasts. His very bold health care proposal has attracted much attention and economic populism has been a staple of Democratic politics since Andrew Jackson in the 1820s. If Gephardt wins New Hampshire, he's going to be awfully tough to beat, particularly in the heavily unionized northern industrialized states.

Sen. Bob Graham of Florida (4 percent) has won five elections in America's pre-eminent swing state by an average of 61 percent. Graham was a finalist on Gore's 2000 veep list and would have tipped both Florida and the election to Gore had he been chosen. He combines both executive experience as a former governor and is very well-respected in Washington. Graham, who's related to the owners of the Washington Post, can also easily raise tons of money. Graham says his slogan will be "most likely to win and best able to lead" and is reportedly the opponent most feared by the Bush team. His biggest handicap may be his health: he recently had heart surgery. Beyond that, he'll have to win in Iowa and New Hampshire where he's not particularly well-known. But if Graham can generate any momentum in New Hampshire, he'll be hard to stop in the Sun Belt primaries of Florida, Texas and California.

Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts (17 percent). Like most upper-class Easterners, Kerry has an Ivy League education. However, unlike most of his Yale classmates, Kerry volunteered for service in Vietnam, winning the Navy Silver Star for combat bravery. He combines liberal positions on social issues with fiscal moderation. (Full disclosure statement: in 1985, I did an internship in Kerry's office and can testify that he's intelligent and charming). Kerry is well-organized and financed (he is married to the heiress of the Heinz ketchup fortune). He now has a solid lead in the crucial first primary in New Hampshire. The question he'll face is whether he can crack the Republican hold on the South and Midwest.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio (3 percent) made national headlines by becoming mayor of Cleveland at the age of 31 (the youngest ever of a major city) and presiding over the city's bankruptcy. He later made a comeback as Cleveland's blue-collar representative in Cnogress. Kucinich combines an old-fashioned fierce labor economic populism with a touch of social conservatism (he opposed abortion until this year). He was also a vocal opponent of the Iraq war. Labor loves his economics, but may be hesitant to support such a long-shot candidate (he's yet to crack 5 percent in national polls).

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (19 percent) rose to prominence in 2000 as Gore's running mate, the first time a Jewish-American had appeared on a major party ticket. Known as the "conscience of the Senate," Lieberman is most Democrats' second choice in the national polls. He finished the 2000 election with a positive (52 percent-17 percent) approval rating in the CNN poll. Respectable, if somewhat unexciting, he will likely be the nominee on name recognition alone should he upset Gephardt in Iowa or Kerry in New Hampshire.

Former Sen. Carol Mosley-Braun of Illinois (6 percent) made history in 1992 by becoming the U.S. Senate's first black woman member. She was defeated for re-election due to ethical problems, but seeks to make history again by running the strongest presidential campaign yet by a woman. Braun has a not-so-secret weapon in competing for the black vote: the fact that a majority of black voters are female and nearly 65 percent of younger black voters are female. If she can win bloc votes from both the black (roughly 30 percent of Democratic primary participants) and Hispanic (about 10 percent) communities, she'll finish at least second – and make history again.

The Rev. Al Sharpton from New York (4 percent) may be the most controversial person ever to seek the presidency. He is notorious on the East Coast for leading numerous demonstrations, some of which have ended in violence. The veteran civil rights leader is attempting to revive the Rev. Jesse Jackson's "Rainbow Coalition" of minorities and white leftists. (Jackson won 29 percent of the vote in the 1988 primaries). His efforts may be undermined by Braun among blacks and Dean on the left. The most intriguing question is whether he'll damage the eventual Democratic nominee as he did 2001 Democratic New York City Mayoral candidate Mark Green.

As in 1988, there is large Democratic field waiting to take on a Republican named George Bush. Also, as in 1988, almost all the Democrats have a distinct regional or ethnic base to run from: Gephardt has labor and Midwestern farmers. Kerry and Dean have liberals in the Northeast. Lieberman has the Jewish community, plus a few Clinton/Gore loyalists. Edwards and Graham are targeting the South. Sharpton and Braun will compete for the black vote. In college basketball, what separates the great teams from the good ones is the ability to win on the road. Whoever is able to break out and win away from their home turf will be the 2004 Democratic nominee.

The groups up for grabs this are suburbanites and Hispanics. Non-union suburban women are the largest single Democratic constituency and they will likely choose next year's Democratic nominee. As for Hispanics, they usually go with the frontrunner, unless there's a member of the Kennedy family running.

Every four years, there is speculation about whether we'll see a "brokered" convention deciding the nomination. Hubert Humphrey in 1968 was the last major-party nominee to win without entering the primaries.

Since 1972, the primary system has decided each party's nomination every time. The system is set up to pick a nominee as quick as possible with more than half the delegates to be selected by March 16. It's theoretically possible that the early primaries could divide equally between three of four major candidates, leading to a deal between two of the top tier people or the convention drafting another candidate. But I would rate the chances of that happening to be very small, less than 1 in 100.

The field will generally shrink after Iowa and New Hampshire as the networks stop covering the also-rans. By March, there will only be two or three candidates still getting much attention from the media.

Let's use a sports metaphor: Iowa and New Hampshire are the regular season to determine who will move on. Super Tuesday and the big state primaries of March and April are the playoffs with the Super Bowl in November. The chances of this occurring in 2004's massive field are better than in the last 10 years when only a few major contenders ran.

In 2000, it had been 112 years since the Electoral College winner lost the popular vote. Eventually, this will happen again – and eventually, there will be another brokered convention. It will probably happen when the party is regionally and ethnically divided, as in 1924 when the convention was split between Northern Catholic Al Smith and the Protestant South and took 103 ballots to choose a nominee (an obscure Wall Street lawyer named John W. Davis). But it's not likely to be next year.

One reason this race is hard to handicap is the multiplicity of candidates. As Ross Perot and Ralph Nader proved in the last decade, minor candidates can have major impact. This can also be true in primaries: in 1976, Morris Udall lost several key primaries to Carter because another liberal from the West (Fred Harris) diverted crucial liberal votes in New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Michigan. One pattern to watch for is whether the long shots Dean or Kucinich hurt the frontrunners -- Gephardt in Iowa or Kerry in New Hampshire -- thus causing upsets.

The early spring polls showing the top tier to include Lieberman, Kerry and Gephardt are only measuring name recognition at this point. This race will be decided by whoever gets hot in Iowa (Jan. 19), New Hampshire (Jan. 27), South Carolina (Feb. 3) Wisconsin (Feb. 17) and Super Tuesday (March 2). And of course, the schedule is not complete yet as more states consider moving their contests up.

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(Patrick Reddy serves as a consultant to California's Assembly Democrats.)

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