2004: Déjà vu all over again, with a twist

The sight of a horde of Democrats pounding one another as they tromp through Iowa farms and New Hampshire hamlets has become a familiar election-year ritual. Associate Professor of Political Science Marie Gottschalk says that there’s a special twist to the 2004 version, though.

In an interview conducted after the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses and before the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary, Gottschalk suggested that just as Sen. Barry Goldwater’s quixotic 1964 campaign laid the groundwork for the Republican resurgence of the 1980s and beyond, the 2004 contest could be a similar watershed for the Democrats.

“There’s a battle for the soul of the party that has been simmering for a while,” she said. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is currently playing the Goldwater role for the Democrats, bringing in new blood that may reshape the national party. The Iowa results highlight some of the splits. For example, old-line industrial unions backed fourth-place finisher Dick Gephardt, while fast-growing service-sector unions lined up behind Dean.

Nonetheless, Gottschalk noted, Dean has an impressive amount of establishment Democratic support behind him. “There are several sources of strength for Dean—high-profile endorsements, Al Gore endorsing him, Carol Mosley-Braun pulling out and endorsing him. He is also leading in the superdelegate count and he has a formidable apparatus among state party officials.”

All this may not be enough to assure him the nomination, though, if he cannot pass the electability test. “People are getting realpolitik and the top issue is, Who can beat George Bush?” she said. The electability issue may have hurt Dean in the final run-up to the Iowa poll, she speculated.

Gottschalk suggested that politics-watchers also look at the second-tier candidates as the primary season rolls on, noting that their supporters could have significant influence over the party platform at the convention, steering it to the left or the center depending on whether these candidates end up backing Dean or a centrist like Sen. John Edwards (D-S.C.), the second-place finisher in Iowa.

Gottschalk does not buy the current wisdom that holds that President George W. Bush is unbeatable. “There are these remarkably high disapproval ratings—higher than those Jimmy Carter had in 1980,” she said. She also urged voters to pay attention to the various symbolic moves the Bush team makes in the coming months.

But she also cautioned that, despite the fact that the electorate is split over Bush much the way it was in 2000, the Democrats cannot win simply by replaying the last election. “The electoral math is incredibly weighted towards the President,” she said, noting that all of the states that gained electoral votes after the 2000 census went for Bush in that year’s election.

Originally published on January 29, 2004