When Democrats Attack in Iowa

Howard Dean was at the top of the polls in Iowa leading up to the 2004 Iowa Caucuses. Richard Gephardt was polling well, but trending down. Gephardt had placed all his bets on Iowa and had to find a way to win. So Gephardt started running ads going after Dean. Dean countered back with ads attacking Gephardt.

While Gephardt's and Dean's ads turned Iowans off from their campaigns, John Kerry and John Edwards kept focusing on the issues and organizing. The night of the caucuses saw Kerry and Edwards come out on top with Dean and Gephardt coming in 3rd and 4th. Iowa was witness of a murder-suicide of the Dean and Gephardt campaigns.

After this week's spat between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I can see this scenario happening again. It is important for Clinton and Obama to finish ahead of the other one in Iowa. As the Iowa caucuses approach, whoever is behind is likely to air ads attacking the other. There is a good chance Clinton and Obama will do exactly what Dean and Gephardt did and we will see yet another murder-suicide scenario.

So with Obama and Clinton mainly focusing on beating each other and seemingly willing to do whatever it takes to do so, there is an opening for other candidates to have big victories in Iowa.

Originally posted at Century of the Common Iowan. 

It was brought to my attention that David Yepsen had a post yesterday that had basically the same connection to the Dean-Gephardt attack ads back in 2004.  I had not read his post nor had heard about before posting mine.  I got the idea from reading Joe Trippi's book, The Revolution Will Not be Televised about the Dean campaign last week.


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  • I disagree with this explanation for 2004

    After the primaries that year, I watched a C-SPAN panel including Steve Murphy, who ran Gephardt’s campaign. He described a series of focus groups they convened in Iowa in September 2003. They were trying to figure out how to get Gephardt about the low 20s in polls, where he had been stuck all year despite favorabiliy ratings around 70 percent among Iowa Democrats.

    They tried a lot of different things in the focus groups, but Steve Murphy said that as the voters learned more about all of the candidates, they gravitated toward kerry and Edwards–just as masses of Iowa Democrats did a few months later.

    These focus groups took place before the tv ad wars between Dean and Gephardt.

    I believe that Dean and Gephardt were always vulnerable to being leapfrogged, because when I started working my precinct, I found a lot of undecided voters who were telling me they were not for Dean or Gephardt.

    Now, if Kerry and/or Edwards had run incompetent campaigns, they might not have been able to capitalize on this dynamic as well as they did.

    But I believe that by the end of the summer, and perhaps earlier, Dean and Gephardt lacked the ability to pick up undecided voters.

    To my mind, the tv ads they ran against each other didn’t change the underlying dynamic that drove the Gephardt focus group participants toward Kerry and Edwards.

  • We found most of the Dean supporters

    right away and they turned out to be loyal but then we hit our limit. Most of the people we talked to did not think Dean could win.

    I don’t recall talking to anyone who supported Gephardt he was not viable in our precinct.

    We did not think Kerry or Edwards could win. The annoying thing about this is the Kerry supporters blame the Dean supporters for his loss.

    I suspect when Hillary loses the same thing will happen.

    • Kerry supporters blame the Dean supporters?

      I was a precinct captain for Kerry. I don’t know Kerry supporters who blame Dean supporters for the general election loss. I think Ohio was stolen from Kerry, and he would have won by an even bigger margin if not for the GOP’s 72-hour GOTV machine and the Osama bin Laden tape.

      I do think Dean would have been a very weak general election candidate. His message discipline was poor and his communication strategy was mediocre.

      Dean supporters are always saying that he wouldn’t have been branded a flip-flopper like Kerry, but at the time Dean looked like a sure thing, the RNC was already putting out press releases tagging Dean as a flip-flopper (on capital punishment and other issues).

      They figured out that polls showed Bush’s “steadfastness” was a positive, and they were determined to brand any Democrat as a flip-flopper.