TCS Daily

General Clark and Anybody But Dean

By John Ellis - September 19, 2003 12:00 AM

It is an article of faith among professional politicians that a divisive primary battle can be fatal to a successful general election campaign. Richard Nixon once told a bewildered group of visitors to his Saddle River Elba that Rep. John Ashbrook's primary challenge had been a major distraction of the 1972 re-election campaign. Most of those gathered had no memory of Ashbrook or the Ashbrook campaign (it began and ended with the New Hampshire primary) and couldn't imagine that it had caused the former president a moment's worry. But Nixon was adamant on the point. Divisive primaries were, he said, in all cases and without exception, "bad news."


Incumbents can, if they're skillful, avoid primary challenges, but what if yours is the out party? The presidential primaries and caucuses produce your nominee; the road back to the White House begins with 7-10 hyper-ambitious people killing each other off to become The One. So what does a political party do to minimize the damage of that fight?


Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAulliffe, in consultation with former President Clinton and a gaggle of Clintonian consultants, decided that the best solution was to compress the primary schedule down to about five weeks. Republicans had no objection to this scheme (memories of battling Buchanan through June of 1992 were still raw) and so it was that the "front-loading" of every major state primary was moved to the month of March. The result is that by March 2, with primaries in New York and California and a handful of other states, the winner of the Democratic presidential nomination will almost certainly be known.


In the McAuliffe schema, this will leave the Democratic Party with plenty of time to heal wounds, raise money for the interim (between the primaries and the Convention) and focus all concerned on the main event. It's a grand idea and, who knows, it just might work. But like all grand political schemes, the law of unintended consequences lurks. And the iron rule of media bias lurks with it.


'Fiji Math'


The iron rule of media bias was once explained to me years ago by Henry Griggs, a media and political consultant. He described it as an analog of what he called "Fiji math." "In Fiji," he said, "they used to count as follows: one, two and many. There was no "three" or "four" or "five." There was just one, two and then that third number; "many." That's how the media cover politics. They can only count to two."


This bias is exaggerated by the exorbitant cost of covering campaigns. Simply put, the major television networks, newsmagazines and newspapers can't afford to cover a "many" field. It's a budget buster inside a budget that already requires huge outlays for pre-primary coverage, primary and caucus Election Night broadcasts, party convention coverage, debate coverage, general election campaign coverage and Election Night broadcasts. As a matter of simple economics, the field must be reduced to two as quickly as possible.


The vehicles for compressing the field are the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Finish out of the money in both states and no news organization will spend a dime covering your campaign from that point forward. Finish third in both states and a campaign's oxygen (media coverage) will be similarly shut off. The only way to make it to South Carolina is to finish first or second in New Hampshire, and the only way to make it to New Hampshire is to win, place or (surprisingly) show in Iowa.


Diminishing the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire has been the goal of the Democratic "establishment" ever since George McGovern captured the 1972 presidential nomination. Since then, more and more "delegate rich states" have moved their primaries up the calendar in the hopes of enticing candidates to campaign there. But a presidential campaign isn't about delegates, it's about media coverage. The only way to attract media coverage is to win. Iowa and New Hampshire, being first on the schedule, are thus decisive. They determine who gets media coverage on the Super Tuesdays that follow and who does not.


General Clark's Candidacy: Anybody But Dean


Enter the law of unintended consequences. In practical political terms, the front-loading of the 2004 primary and caucus schedule means that former Vermont Governor Howard Dean will almost certainly be one of the two remaining candidates after the New Hampshire primary. He will finish first or second in Iowa. He will probably win New Hampshire (with Republican cross-over help). At that point, an Anybody But Dean (similar to the Anybody But McGovern in 1972 and Anybody But Carter in 1976 movements) would be all but impossible to organize. There simply wouldn't be enough time.


Enter General Wesley Clark, a Clinton/McAuliffe production if there ever was one (Clark's advisors, almost to a person, are all veteran Clinton hacks). General Clark's candidacy is the Anybody But Dean campaign. With a twist. The twist is that Hillary Clinton's name will soon be floated as his running mate. The message will be that Clark-Clinton will unite the party. All of this has happened or will soon happen before a single vote has been cast. That's how much front-loading the primary schedule has exaggerated the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire and distorted the nomination process.


What's remarkable about all this is not Howard Dean, fine fellow though he may be. What's remarkable about this is what has made Howard Dean such a formidable force. Combine college-eductated, information-age workers with the power of the Internet and in virtually no time there's a master list of 500,000 email addresses networked and ready to go. In two weeks, they raise more money than John Kerry does in two months. In two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, they have active, vibrant organizations in every county. And by focusing their attention on those two states, they are leveraging the power of their network into a media and political juggernaut.


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