In comparing the race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination with the 2004 Democratic primary, columnist Stuart Rothenberg likens the relationship between Texas Gov. Rick Perry (left) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (right) to that of then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. John Kerry.
The question is whether Republican voters ultimately will go with the red meat, Perry, or opt for the safer choice, Romney, who sounds more “presidential” and would appear to have more appeal to swing voters and moderates.
Republicans find themselves essentially in the same place that Democrats did in the fall of 2003 and early winter of 2004, when they had to choose between then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Obviously, the Dean-Kerry metaphor isn’t identical to the Perry-Romney race, but it is instructive about how the dynamics of a contest can change over time.
At various points in a campaign, voters are looking for one thing or another, and those things can be very different in August of the off year than in January of the election year. And in the case of Dean, the media’s focus on the “national” primary obscured a much closer race in Iowa.
In national surveys, Dean started to establish himself at the head of the Democratic pack in November 2003. In a mid-December Gallup poll, Dean opened up a clear lead, drawing 31 percent and putting him far ahead of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, Gen. Wesley Clark and Kerry, who were all bunched in the very low double-digits.
The Vermont governor had recently won a mother lode of endorsements, including those of former Vice President Al Gore, two huge labor unions (Service Employees International Union and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), former Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.), Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and a slew of celebrities.
In two early January 2004 Gallup surveys, Dean’s only real competition was the largely untested Clark, while Kerry was sitting at 9 percent shortly before the Iowa caucuses.
Polling of likely Iowa caucuses attendees showed a much tighter contest, but with Dean again far better-positioned than Kerry.
In August 2003, Dean had held a narrow 25 percent to 21 percent lead over then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) among caucuses attendees, according to polling conducted by Research 2000 for KCCI TV. Kerry was third at 16 percent.
Throughout the summer, fall and early winter, Dean either led the race in subsequent KCCI polls or was tied with Gephardt in the mid- to upper-20s, with Kerry generally sitting in the middle of the teens.
Dean’s strength in Iowa and nationally looked so great and his momentum so strong that even someone who should have known better — me — wrote in this space in November that there was an 80 percent chance that Howard Dean would be the Democratic nominee in 2004.
But the race in Iowa shifted dramatically in the final days, as voters moved toward Kerry and then-Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and away from Dean, and then the national numbers flipped.
Exit polling in Iowa showed Kerry did well across all demographic groups, suggesting that the breadth of his appeal was a considerable asset. He didn’t just win moderates or people with more education or people who approved of the war in Iraq.
While Kerry trailed Dean among those for whom the war in Iraq was the top issue, Kerry held his own among those attendees and clobbered the Vermonter among those for whom the economy and jobs was the top issue — a much larger proportion of caucus-goers.