10.28.2003

AREN'T THEY ALL ACTIVIST PRIMARIES?

Dick Morris, Clinton's politico, offers this in today's New York Post, a column entitled, "The Activist Primary" -

THE Democratic presidential races usually feature a thematic competition that foreshadows the earliest of primaries and determines the eventual nominee. The tough part is figuring out what this pivotal contest is about. Often, it is only apparent after one candidate has won it.

For example, Mike Dukakis won the 1988 nomination because he proved that he could raise more money than any of his rivals. By beating Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson and the others in the financial primary, he was able to pile up victories in the various key states and secure the nomination.

In 1992, Bill Clinton won the image primary. A party adrift, lacking confidence in its ideas, found the "new" Democratic Party heralded by the moderate governor from the Democratic Leadership Council most attractive. By offering a way out of the liberal dogma that had doomed Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Dukakis, the three previous nominees, Clinton turned on the party's thinkers, writers, and movers with his pledges to "end welfare as we know it," to support a "middle-class tax cut" and to back capital punishment.

In 2000, Al Gore defeated former Sen. Bill Bradley in the audition primary, waged largely in their debates, where the two competed to see who could be more aggressive and forceful in attacking the Republicans. Bradley's diffidence and restraint, contrasted with Gore's tough attacks, made the former athlete seem too weak to take on Bush.

In 2004, it appears that the activist primary is the key. By using the Internet to mobilize hundreds of thousands of cyber-roots volunteers and donors, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has staked out an early lead that is likely to hold up and give him the nomination. Using his 500,000 online supporters to raise $15 million in the past quarter (three times his nearest rival's take), Dean has built up a substantial national base while challenging Gephardt in Iowa and John Kerry in New Hampshire.

Dean realizes that four years of GOP rule have left Democrats angry, frustrated and determined to lash back. By opening his Internet portal to these militants, he has offered a living, interactive campaign where ordinary men and women can make a difference.

In the Gephardt or Kerry campaigns, you are invited to write a check. In the Wes Clark campaign, one can tune in and watch the candidate on television. But Dean urges activists to bring in their family and friends, clicking on the Web as they migrate to his candidacy. As a result, the Dean campaign is just larger than anybody else's - more donors, more workers, more activists.

Clark thinks he is still back in 1992, using the Clinton playbook to win the image primary. He hopes that by tapping into the historical paradigm of the general-as-a-man-of-peace, he can score where past generals have.

He's read his history. Ulysses S. Grant was elected president not only for his military prowess, but for his words at Appomattox: "Let us have peace." Dwight D. Eisenhower surged to victory in 1952 not only by summoning the memories of D-Day, but also by pledging "I shall go to Korea" to end the sanguinary stalemate that drained more than 40,000 American lives.

Clark has won his image primary and Dean has won the activist primary. No candidate can match the attractive image Clark has created as the general-as-a-man-of-peace, nor can any come close to equaling the swelling ranks of the Dean campaign.

Kerry, Gephardt, Joe Lieberman and John Edwards have lost out on both counts - their images attract no coverage and their campaigns get few volunteers.

In a sense, Clark vs. Dean is the classic confrontation of the TV-image candidate vs. the party activists' choice. It's either the first battle of the post-TV era or the last hurrah of media power. My bet is that it is the herald of the new age.


Though thought provoking, this goes overboard in simplifying primaries. In fact, ALL primaries are activist primaries, the variable from one to the next is in the medium used to rally them. Dukakis was able to blast his message all over TV, Clinton earned all sorts of free media because of his image (CNN having grown enourmously recently with the Gulf War), Gore's audition was a combination of these; using tons of earned and paid media to promote his image.

Dean's winds are in many ways the perfect storm for Democrat activists. He brings a dovish message in an agressive manner to them in new ways. But that alone won't win it for him. The Internet is a tool he's brilliantly figured out how to use. But if he backed off paid TV because of his Internet prominance, he'd be as good as dead.

Agressive fundraising, creating an image, and promoting a message of being able to win are all now integral pieces of a campaign. What Morris' column provides is a history lesson of how they all came to bear. Dean's use of the internet would be better compared to Kennedy's use of TV, LBJ's use of attack ads, and Deukmajian's use of direct mail. Dean has caught the next wave of campaign technology. He's figured out how to take something that exists commonly and utilize it for his campaign.

All primaries are activist primaries. Howard Dean has just figured out a way to mobilize his online warriors.

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