I asked a Democratic colleague the other day whom she supports for president in 2004. “In my head I’m for Gephardt, but in my heart I’m for Howard Dean.” Based on the second-quarter fund-raising reports released yesterday and the general political buzz, her response was not unique. The Dean campaign has some fuel, and it’s gathering momentum — and grabbing wallets.
At first, I found this view somewhat curious. Why would smart, politically savvy people support a nominee who — in my opinion — cannot win the general election? (I even considered suggesting that incoming Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie propose the old Goldwater slogan to the Dean campaign — “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.” But I never made the call.) Mr. Dean fits a well-worn pattern in presidential politics — one that explains his recent surge, but also predicts an unhappy ending for his White House aspirations.
Political parties in America are loose confederations of people bound together, more often by electoral expediency than policy agreement. Southern whites and urban blacks thrown together in the original New Deal coalition in the 1930s are a classic example. American political parties are commonly “umbrella-like” organizations, “a coalition of many diverse partners,” according to Duke University political scientist John Aldrich, in his book “Why Parties.” Yet, not all party identifiers behave equally.
The more active and ideological “base voters” play a disproportionately strong role in each party’s presidential nominating process — they contribute early and vote often. Their impact is most apparent when opposition parties challenge a popular incumbent president. This pattern helps explain why David Von Drehle in The Washington Post last week wrote, “The left is once again a driving force in the [Democratic] party” and why “the left has lifted one-time dark-horse presidential candidate [Dean] into near-front-runner status.”
Over the last 50 years, party nominees who challenge popular sitting presidents often emerge from the more ideologically extreme element of the party. Mr. Dean’s successful current pilgrimage follows a well-worn path.
For the Democrats, the best recent examples are Adlai Stevenson in 1956, George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984. In each case, the Republican presidents seeking re-election were extremely popular. Approval ratings in November of the election year were Eisenhower (1956) 75 percent, Nixon (1972) 62 percent and Reagan (1984) 61 percent. Drawing on the energy and resources of the ideological left, the Democratic nominee in each of these cases was also among the most liberal of the potential candidates.
Republicans had their own example in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson’s approval was at 69 percent in November, and the GOP nominated Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater over his two more ideologically moderate competitors, Govs. Nelson Rockefeller of New York and William Scranton of Pennsylvania. Compared to his more middle-of-the-road Republican rivals, Goldwater, provided a “choice, not an echo” to Johnson, according to his GOP supporters.
Comparing 1964 and 1972, Mr. Aldrich says, “Like Goldwater’s convention eight years earlier, McGovern’s convention humiliated the former center of power in the party.” He notes that Democrats replaced a pragmatic machine politician, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, with Jesse Jackson as a delegate (1972), while Republicans boisterously booed Mr. Rockefeller off the stage (1964).
There are some exceptions to this pattern, but each includes extenuating circumstances. Jimmy Carter lost in 1980, after Republican nominee Ronald Reagan ran to the right and defeated George H. W. Bush in the primaries. Yet, Mr. Carter’s approval was about 31 percent around the election and a tough nomination fight against Sen. Edward Kennedy further battered his bid for re-election. President George H. W. Bush also lost in 1992, after a bruising primary challenge. He had a 34 percent approval rating around the election, with Ross Perot garnering nearly 20 percent of the vote.
Yet, despite these exceptions, the history and biases of the Democratic process clearly demonstrates how Mr. Dean could win the nomination. His competitors, as well as pundits who dismiss his campaign as “too liberal,” do so at their own peril.
Nevertheless, another historical precedent deserves greater note — the general election results. When political parties nominate candidates associated with the ideological extreme, popular presidents win by a landslide. Eisenhower captured 57 percent in 1956, Johnson 61 percent in 1964, Nixon 61 percent in 1972 and Mr. Reagan 59 percent in 1984.
Howard Dean may indeed offer a “choice, not an echo” to voters and join a venerable list of candidates positioned far from the center median on the presidential nomination highway. Yet, history predicts treacherous traveling on the bumpy left shoulder of the road to the White House. So, if Mr. Dean wins the nomination, go ahead and add him to another tally sheet — political road kill on the path to an incumbent president’s reelection bid.