GOP Pollsters Insist Dean Can Beat Bush

Posted October 3, 2003 at 6:29pm

A memo being circulated by a prominent Republican polling firm argues that GOPers run a serious risk of underestimating former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) as a general election candidate against President Bush.

Pollsters Bob Moore and Hans Kaiser of Moore Information argue that “if one makes the case that Bush could be vulnerable to the poofy [Sens.] John Kerry or the scintillating (yawn) Bob Graham how can anyone write off Howard Dean?”

Dean has leapt to the top of the polls in key primary states as well as the money chase by touting himself as the consummate outsider candidate in a field filled with Members of Congress.

“The difference between Howard Dean and the rest of the Democrat[ic] candidates is that Dean comes across as a true believer to the base but will not appear threatening to folks in the middle,” Moore and Kaiser write. “We are whistling past the graveyard if we think Howard Dean will be a pushover.”

The two sent out the analysis late last week in response to a recent New York Times column by David Brooks in which he interviewed eight Republican pollsters, all of whom said Dean would be the easiest of the leading Democratic presidential candidates for Bush to defeat.

That view — based on Dean’s fervent opposition to the war in Iraq and call for a full-scale rollback of Bush’s tax cut — remains a potent one among a number of Republican Members and strategists who believe Dean’s supposedly liberal stances would doom him when he tries to appeal to swing voters next November.

“Dean would clearly be the weakest in terms of his ability to reach out to the middle,” said Republican pollster David Winston, a contributing writer for Roll Call.

“We don’t mind Howard Dean at all, particularly in the South and Alaska,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.), noting that Dean at the top of the ticket would likely help the GOP Senate candidates in those areas.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) offered less measured remarks on the topic last week.

“Dean’s my man. I’m a big Dean guy,” Bush said sarcastically at an event announcing that he would serve as chairman of his brother’s Florida campaign. “I think being governor of a state that’s got a budget half the size of Miami-Dade County makes him eminently qualified to be the Democratic candidate.”

Moore and Kaiser rebut that sort of “conventional wisdom,” calling it “misguided” and “counterproductive.”

“Writing off a candidate like Dean by selectively sorting statistical gobble-de-gook [sic] and mixing it into a broth of ‘empirical’ sociological evidence ignores the political realities of our time,” the memo notes.

One Republican pollster agreed that the assumption that Dean’s ideological underpinnings would alienate swing voters could well be wrong-headed.

“Part of his appeal appears to be more stylistic than substantive,” the pollster said. “There is an element of plain-spoken, Ross Perot style about him.”

Moore and Kaiser also offer an electoral vote scenario under which Dean could defeat Bush in 2004. They give Dean victories in 23 states (270 electoral votes) and point out that Bush lost all but two — Nevada and West Virginia — in the 2000 presidential election.

Moore and Kaiser argue that with Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) not likely to face a top-tier opponent and the “nuclear repository issue still alive and kicking,” the Silver State, which Bush won by 20,000 votes in 2000, could easily be carried by the Democratic nominee.

Similarly in West Virginia, where Bush won by a surprising 6-point margin in 2000, Moore and Kaiser believe that “Dean’s willingness to work with the [National Rifle Association] on gun owners’ rights will go a long way to deflecting the ‘liberal’ charge.”

In the 2000 election, then-Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral college to Bush 271 to 266.

Officials involved in Bush’s re-election campaign as well as several Republican pollsters say they long ago came to the realization that Dean was a political force that needed to be taken seriously.

“The Bush campaign is taking Dean seriously because they think he would do a better job of rallying the Democratic base than some of the other candidates,” said one Republican consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Dean gets their base voters excited.”

In an interview Friday, Moore agreed that “those who are fully engaged in the political process understand that [Dean] does represent a potential problem.”

Indeed, Dean’s plain-spoken appeal to

party regulars to be proud of their Democratic roots has resonated among some voters.

In Iowa, Dean has moved from low single-digit support at the start of 2003 to a perch as the co-frontrunner along with Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) in the Jan. 19, 2004, caucuses.

Dean began in New Hampshire with somewhat of a geographical base due to his 12 years as Vermont’s governor, though Kerry was originally pegged by many analysts as the frontrunner in that state’s Jan. 27 primary. But Dean is now leading in many New Hampshire polls although the state remains a critical must-win for Kerry.

Between July 1 and Sept. 30, the Dean campaign raised better than $15 million, shattering the previous record for fundraising in a quarter by a Democrat that had been held by former President Bill Clinton. Dean has raised nearly $25 million since Jan. 1.

Even that number, however, pales in comparison to the $80 million Bush has raised during the past six months.

For its part, the Dean campaign says it doesn’t mind being underestimated.

“To underestimate Howard Dean is to underestimate the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are joining the Dean campaign every day — all of whom are committed to the change that Gov. Dean’s campaign represents,” said spokeswoman Courtney O’Donnell.