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Mo’ Better

Campaign Journal.

After a teeth-chattering ride on a propeller plane from Minneapolis, I arrive in Des Moines on Friday, three days before the Iowa caucuses. I was last here a week ago, and what a difference a week makes. Flights in are crowded with equipment from German, Japanese, and Dutch film crews. The rental-car agents at the airport buzz about catching glimpses of “Miss Paula Zahn.” Out on the roads, satellite trucks are a common sight.

Howard Dean is rolling through the state on his “People Powered Road Trip,” and I catch up with it in Newton, a town best-known for its Maytag factory. Dean is speaking at Aces Teen Club, a community center on the outskirts of town; I park in front of the Newton Christian School next door, noting that a woman is standing in front of, perhaps even guarding, the door to the school. She eyes the chaos of the event at Aces a little warily. 

A man dressed as a giant carrot with a blue bow tie and Uncle Sam hat is greeting people on their way into the community center. “You may be asking yourself, ‘Why on earth would I vote for a talking vegetable?’ or ‘What can he do for me?’” Chris P. Carrot’s literature says. “I have found the weapons of mass destruction, and they are in your kitchen drawer! America, we need to remove the terror—from the kitchen table.” Carrot, it turns out, has been sent out by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to spread the word about vegan and vegetarian diets. Alongside him, college kids dressed in orange jumpsuits promote renewable energy.

Over in the press section, Dean-doubting is the story of the day. It’s hard to exaggerate how much the Zogby tracking polls have driven coverage of the race in these final days before Monday night’s caucuses. Dean and Richard Gephardt are stalled or dropping, while John Kerry and John Edwards are moving, according to the polls. The media is playing this up as a battle between the organization (or “org”) candidates, Dean and Gephardt, who have the most people on the ground here, and the momentum (or “mo”) candidates, Kerry and Edwards, who seem to be generating the most enthusiasm. Of course, everyone agrees that, this being a caucus, the polls are almost meaningless. Nonetheless, everyone pores over them for hidden clues to what will happen here.

Maybe I’m just caught up in the dynamics of the pack, but Dean does not look like a man on the eve of a great victory. At the two Friday events I attend—in Newton and, a couple of hours later, in Marshalltown—the venues are not overflowing. On my way into the gymnasium at Aces, an aide shouts the sentence that every campaign dreads to hear at this stage in the game: “There are still some seats left inside.” In Marshalltown, many of the bodies in the room are not local Iowans but “perfect-stormers,” the out-of-state Dean volunteers marked by their telltale fluorescent orange hats. Here, Dean is introduced prematurely by a nasal-voiced college kid in an oversized Dean t-shirt. Aides scramble to find Dean outside and usher him onto the stage. The vibe from staffers is a tad defensive. Without being asked, a senior adviser tells me, “This is Gephardt country. I was surprised we got fifty people.” The mood of the crowd is divided. The obvious Dean partisans holler and cheer. The undecided folks, who are here making their final assessments of the candidates before caucus night, applaud politely. “Where is his wife?” an older woman asks one Dean aide. When told that she practices medicine in Vermont, the woman responds, “Well, doesn’t she want to campaign with him?”

Traveling with Dean is Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who not only opens but closes the candidate’s appearances. “This is the Harry Truman of our time,” Harkin says at every stop. The senator has counseled Dean to scale back his negative attacks, and, perhaps as a consequence, Dean’s stump speech doesn’t have the same edge or coherence it once did. There have been two basic messages Dean has delivered over the last year. One was his attack on the Washington candidates for supporting the war and other Bush policies. The other, once his campaign took off, was a message of process—vote for Dean because he’s the only candidate who will have the resources to defeat President Bush. But, in Iowa at least, these two messages seem to have reached a point of diminishing returns. USA Today’s Walter Shapiro, who has covered Dean closely since 2002, notes, “He seems like an aging rocker delivering his old tunes.”

After the Newton event, staff and reporters spill outside and pile into the 15-vehicle caravan that will carry them to Marshalltown. At the same time, dozens of kids spill out of the Newton Christian School next door and line up for their rides home. They don’t seem to be from Dean households. “Is that Howard Dean?” one asks, pointing to a man who is not Dean. “He’s in jeans. How unpatriotic!” Another kid yells, “Go George Bush!” A schoolboy, who has apparently memorized the jingle from one of Dean’s endlessly playing TV commercials, mockingly yells at the passing caravan, “I’m Howard Dean. The power to take the county back is in your hands, not mine!”

JOE TRIPPI, DEAN’S campaign manager and strategic guru, has a room a few doors away from mine here at the Hotel Fort Des Moines. This morning, we both happen to leave at the same time, and we talk on the elevator ride down to the lobby.

Trippi on the media’s current fixation with the Kerry and Edwards surges: “I don’t know what they expect. They hammered the living daylights out of us. Let’s see how these guys look after they’ve hammered the living daylights out of them, ‘cause it’s gonna happen. But about what’s going to happen on Monday? Give me a break. It’s Gephardt or Dean.”

Trippi on why it’s intensity of support that really matters: “You go out and go door to door, and you get a whole lot of ‘I like Kerry.’ ‘Are you gonna go to the caucus?’ ‘I don’t like him that much.’…And it’s not just here; it’s everywhere. They can’t get anybody to be for them.”

Trippi on the uselessness of appealing to undecided voters: “The undecideds aren’t going to vote! I mean, they are going to vote, but they are going to vote undecided. …Undecideds don’t break here. Every year. Does anybody go back and look at results before they cover the state? They never break! Never! There’s, like, no year in which they ever broke. They walk in, they vote undecided.”

APART FROM THE birth of the Dean phenomenon last year, I haven’t witnessed anything in this campaign as exciting as the John Edwards appearances I have attended the last couple of days.

Dean events are like Grateful Dead concerts, where the faithful show up and groove to their favorite hits. (In case this sounds like I’m stereotyping Dean supporters as hippies, please note that this analogy was offered to me by Dean media adviser Steve McMahon.) Edwards events, by contrast, are like watching a roomful of formerly deaf people listen to music for the first time. People walk in as skeptics and leave as believers.

There is a local rule of thumb popularized by David Yepsen of The Des Moines Register that says, if an Iowan is sitting back in his chair with his arms folded across his chest, that’s a sure sign the candidate has yet to win him over. While I wait with about 150 other people for Edwards to arrive at a community college in Iowa Falls on Saturday night, I spot one such man, Dennis Reynoldson. He is 61 years old and has never been to a caucus in his life. “I’m not even a Democrat,” he tells me. “I’m an independent, but I’m going to switch.” He says he voted for Al Gore but “wasn’t all that disappointed when Bush won.” But, after the Bush tax cuts and the war, he has decided Bush has to go. His only question now is which Democrat to support.

When Edwards arrives, he and his staff seem giddy. They’ve just learned that the eagerly awaited Des Moines Register poll shows Edwards, who had never polled higher than the low single digits in that survey, in second place with 23 percent. Edwards’s presentation at these events has lately become more intense and theatrical. He arrives and departs to rock music blaring from his bus. He draws huge crowds that spill outside of union halls and community centers. He delivers his stump speech in a theater-in-the-round setting, standing dramatically in the center of a circle of Iowans. His longtime message of tying his own working-class background to a set of policies meant to address middle-class anxiety remains unchanged. Grafted onto it more recently is lots of language about hope, optimism, and an end to the petty sniping that has characterized the campaign.

Unlike the other candidates, Edwards is still relatively unknown to most of the people at his events. Many have come out because they watched his final debate appearance, which won rave reviews, or read that he was endorsed by The Des Moines Register. You can actually feel the crowd metamorphose from folded-arm skepticism to open-minded curiosity to head-nodding support. “The truth of the matter is this,” Edwards says in his closing argument at one stop. “We Democrats have always been the party that believes you don’t look down on anybody. That you lift people up. That you don’t tear people apart. You bring them together. We are the party that believes that, in our America, the family you’re born into and the color of your skin will never control what you’re able to do. I don’t for a minute believe I can do this by myself. But I believe that you and I can do it together. Here’s why: Because I believe in you. And you deserve a president who actually believes in you. Join me in this campaign! Join me in this fight! …” The rest is drowned out by a standing ovation.

After the end of the Iowa Falls event, I find Dennis Reynoldson again. What does he think now? Edwards is “a good man,” he tells me. “I like him. I’m going to vote for him. Now excuse me, I’m going to go shake his hand.”

What’s so fascinating about this late Edwards surge is how organic it is. Edwards has few big-name endorsements. He has no unions backing him. He has few out-of-state volunteers. “We don’t have any external support,” Roxanne Conlin, a leader of Edwards’s Iowa campaign, exhorts the crowds at every stop. “We’re counting on you.” The campaign’s method of spreading the fire they have ignited here is as low-tech as begging audiences to go home and call everyone on their Christmas card lists.

Within 48 hours, pundits have both blessed Edwards as the late-closing “it” candidate and dismissed the surge as too little too late. Caucuses, everyone seems to agree, don’t reward a candidate with a late spike in the polls unless he or she has already built the delivery mechanism to take advantage of it. Still, there are two reasons not to dismiss Edwards. The first is Jennifer O’Malley, Edwards’s field director. Operatives like Michael Whouley of the Kerry campaign have rightfully received much attention lately. But O’Malley has a victory under her belt that’s worth remembering: She was the field organizer for Senator Tim Johnson in 2002, one of the few campaigns in the last cycle where the Democrats convincingly beat the Republicans on the ground.

A second reason for hope is that, even if O’Malley doesn’t get Edwards people to the caucuses, maybe all those Teamsters and teens working for Gephardt and Dean will. The Iowans moving into the Edwards column are not just undecided voters. Many of them are people having second thoughts about their first-choice candidate. For example, on Friday I met a man named Robert Bell, a Gephardt supporter. And not just any Gephardt supporter. Bell is the guy Iowans see on television in Gephardt advertisements and in their mailboxes on Gephardt campaign literature. But I met him at an Edwards event in Winterset, Iowa, where he seemed to be swooning along with the rest of the crowd. He said that Edwards was “tugging” at him. “I like Dick, and I’ve known him for several years,” Bell told me with a voice that suggested loyalty rather than passion. But does he wish he were backing Edwards? “Sometimes.” Bell didn’t sound like he was switching. But what if many of the folks the other campaigns believe are solidly behind their candidate do? It’s not inconceivable that Kerry, Gephardt, and Dean will bring some of these people to the polls or at least call them up and urge them to get out and vote. “Our people may be going because of the help of the other campaigns,” says David Ginsberg, Edwards’s communications director. It sounds like wishful thinking. But, as Edwards says in his stump speech, his campaign is one based on hope. 

IT’S LATE AFTERNOON, and John Kerry is standing on a chair in a crowded high school basement in Ames. This is his last speech in Iowa before the caucuses. His brother Cam, a longtime adviser who has been at Kerry’s side in every campaign since Kerry’s failed 1972 congressional race, stands a few feet away, beaming. Two nights earlier, Cam could be found gently mocking the media, practically quoting verbatim from the political obituaries written about Kerry over the last six months. Today, Kerry is leading in all the polls, and the campaign is brimming with confidence.

A few feet away is Jim Rassmann, a man whose life Kerry saved in Vietnam and who started traveling with the senator in the final days of the campaign here. Rassmann is straight out of central casting, a Republican from Oregon who hadn’t seen Kerry since 1969. He contacted the campaign on a lark and was flown to Iowa within 24 hours. He testifies to the still-undecided crowds that, when Kerry “looks into your eyes, you’re going to see a man of character.” It’s the perfect complement to the Kerry campaign’s first effort to organize some 10,000 Iowa veterans.

Up on his chair, Kerry implores the gathered crowd, “Go to your caucuses tonight, and don’t just send them a message, send them a president of the United States, so we can say, ‘Mission accomplished!’” His eyes are a little moist. “I think this was really emotional for him,” an aide tells me after the event.

From Ames, Kerry travels to Urbandale High School outside Des Moines to greet caucus goers. As he enters the building, Kerry runs into a chaotic scene: Several caucuses are about to commence throughout the building, and Iowans are swarming around searching for their meetings. “Where are the undecideds?” he asks, stepping inside from the cold. Again, according to the pros, this is folly: As Trippi explained to me, the undecideds don’t break at the last minute—they just vote undecided. But, minutes before the caucuses begin, Kerry is still scrounging for votes. “How do I get you over the edge here?” he asks one woman.

After Kerry leaves, I stick around to watch the caucus. The attendees break into their presidential preference groups, and the numbers look like this:40 people for Kerry, 44 for Edwards, 26 for Dean, and 9 for Gephardt. Then the caucus chair announces that the Gephardt supporters are not viable, and the Kerry and Edwards precinct captains descend upon them like wild dogs. Corey Goerdt, the 18-year-old Edwards captain, tells a caucus goer to choose his candidate over Kerry, because the Massachusetts senator “is not going to work in the South.” He’s also prepared to make the case against Dean if he needs to, thanks to a thick caucus field manual containing persuasion scripts that he was issued by the Edwards campaign. Though it’s marked “privileged and confidential,” Goerdt lets me flip through it. The way to contrast Edwards with Dean, it says, is to compare Dean’s biography with Edwards’s son-of-a-mill-worker upbringing. “Howard Dean is a Park Avenue elitist,” it advises Edwards supporters to say. But Goerdt doesn’t wind up needing this advice. By the time the Dean captain at this caucus figures out that he’s supposed to be picking up undecideds and former Gephardt people, the Edwards and Kerry teams have already divvied them up between themselves. Final score: Kerry 53, Edwards 51, Dean 26. It’s a result that is repeated, more or less, across the entire state.

At 8:50 p.m., I’m riding an elevator up to the tenth floor of the Hotel Fort Des Moines with Marvin Nicholson, Kerry’s body man, and half a dozen other Kerry supporters. Nicholson has Howard Dean on the line. “Governor?” he asks, holding a silver flip-phone up to his ear and flashing a giant, toothy grin to the rest of us. Dean is calling Kerry to concede, but he’ll have to wait a little longer. “I’ll have the senator on the phone in two minutes,” Marvin says politely. He exits the elevator and walks down the hall to suite 1014, where Kerry is sitting with his family. “Senator, Governor Dean is on the phone.” “Thank you very much,” Kerry says, taking the phone. He walks into the bedroom alone and closes the door behind him.

Later, at the Kerry victory party downstairs, giddy aides chatter happily about how overhyped and amateurish the Dean ground game was. “The Dean people were on the corner of the street in downtown Des Moines waving signs,” one woman laughs into her cell phone. “They had no sense of organization.” The Dean campaign called it the “perfect storm,” which produces chuckles from Holly Armstrong, a Kerry organizer. “I kept telling everybody,” she explains, “in The Perfect Storm, everybody dies at the end.”

WHY DID DEAN’S Iowa campaign die at the end? For starters, Trippi (and many analysts) were spectacularly wrong about the undecideds. They broke with a vengeance for Kerry and Edwards. Forty-four percent of caucus goers made their decision in the final week, and, of those, Kerry won 39 percent, Edwards won 35 percent, and Dean just 14 percent. Other conversations I had with senior Dean advisers over the final two weeks of the Iowa campaign also seem delusional in hindsight—for example, loose talk about their plans for the general election and guffaws about the coming irrelevance of the Democratic Leadership Council and its allies. The night before the caucuses, aides were still vigorously defending an attack ad about the Iraq war they had run on Iowa TV—an ad they now concede was disastrous. Moderates, and even some liberals, who were intrigued by Dean started bailing on him beginning in December, because rather than trying to expand his base and broaden his message Dean turned sharply left. After he funded his campaign and fired up the base, the argument had gone, he would shift back to the center. But his campaign became intoxicated by the fumes of its own supporters and morphed ever closer to its worst caricatures, peaking with Dean’s perhaps suicidal concession speech to hundreds of his perfect-stormers at the Val Air Ballroom in Des Moines.

Trippi’s fear that high turnout would turn the caucuses into a virtual primary also came true. But the Dean grassroots backfired on Dean in two additional ways. First, the 3,000 or 4,000 people that came to the state on Dean’s behalf may have alienated just as many Iowans as they pulled to the caucuses. There is undoubtedly a strong antiwar streak among Iowa Democrats, but they are not, for the most part, lifestyle liberals. When hordes of kids with dyed hair and multiple piercings descended upon the state to spread Dean’s message with Scientology-like evangelism, Kerry began to look real good. Second, the organizational potential of the Dean army was exaggerated. I was struck by a conversation I had the night before the caucuses with a Dean perfect-stormer named Larry. I asked him what he would be doing the next day. He had no idea. “It’s too damn cold to canvass,” he said. And Larry is from Minneapolis. Even apart from the apathy of some Deaniacs, one has to wonder if the Dean campaign didn’t waste enormous organizational resources figuring out how to move thousands of volunteers into and around Iowa at the expense of figuring out how to move thousands of Iowans to their caucuses.

Dean’s aides insist that just because nothing worked right for the Dean campaign in Iowa doesn’t mean New Hampshire will be a similar debacle. The big-name political endorsements—Gore, Bradley, Harkin—Dean racked up during his halcyon days didn’t help, and arguably hurt, him. But his two most significant institutional backers, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union, haven’t been tested yet. They will be much more of a factor in New Hampshire—not to mention in New York and California, if Dean makes it to Super Tuesday on March 2. And, while Dean’s bizarre election night rant is remembered for the image it produced, what he said had a germ of truth in it: He does have a national campaign and the resources to compete into the spring.

Indeed, the day after that manic concession speech, Dean is in New Hampshire, trying to shift back toward his moderate, problem-solver roots. At an event in Manchester, he tells reporters, “This is a good opportunity for me to get back to the issues that got me into the race in the first place: Balanced budgets, human services, and a sense of community we don’t seem to have anymore.” It’s a far different message from the one that dominated his Iowa campaign in its final weeks. But there is a nagging sense on the ground and in the polling data here in New Hampshire that no stump-speech tinkering can overcome the self-inflicted wounds of the Val Air scream. Dean can shift to a new message, but he may never be able to shake that one image. 

This article originally ran in the February 2, 2004, issue of the magazine.