Handicapping the Democrats
Howard Dean wins an online "primary." Will Al Gore regret having helped create the Internet?

BY JAMES TARANTO, Monday, June 30, 2003

Hoping to unite early behind a candidate to oppose President Bush, the Democrats "front-loaded" their 2004 primary schedule so that everything should be settled by early March. But they weren't expecting the first primary to be held in June 2003.

The " primary," as it was billed, wasn't a real primary but a two-day online poll held last week. It drew 317,647 votes, "larger than both the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses combined," boasts MoveOn, a Web-based political action committee for left-wing activists that originated in 1998 as an electronic petition opposing President Clinton's impeachment. The winner was fiery physician Howard Dean, who captured nearly 44% of the "vote."

Internet "polls" are generally worthless as measures of public opinion. The samples are self-selected, and such surveys are vulnerable to ballot stuffing. MoveOn avoided the latter problem through a variety of security measures, which it validated by hiring a polling firm to conduct a phone survey of 1,011 randomly chosen respondents to the online poll. This "exit poll" found that the online survey's results were indeed an accurate reflection of opinion among those who participated.

This leaves the question: Just what kind of voter participated in the MoveOn poll? How representative is it of the party as a whole? The group provides no demographic information on its survey participants; it's not clear if it even collected any such information. It stands to reason that participants in an Internet poll would tend to be young and well-educated. Beyond this, it's instructive to compare the MoveOn results with those of a Gallup poll, also released last week, of the preferences of 697 "Democrats or Democratic leaners" (rankings in parentheses):

MoveOn Gallup
43.87% (1)
6% (6)
3.19% (4)
7% (4)
2.24% (6)
6% (6)
15.73% (3)
13% (3)
23.93% (2)
1% (9)
2.44% (5)
15% (2)
1.92% (8)
20% (1)
Moseley Braun
2.21% (7)
6% (6)
0.53% (9)
7% (4)

It seems clear from these contrasting results that the MoveOn participants are well to the left of Democrats in general. Not only did Dr. Dean finish in first place, but more than one in five MoveOn "voters" backed Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a man so far to the left that he couldn't even bring himself to support a resolution supporting the troops in Iraq. (He voted "present.")

It's also likely that the MoveOn crowd is much less racially diverse than the Democratic Party as a whole. Gallup broke down its results by race and found that the top two candidates among blacks are Al Sharpton, with 24%, and Joe Lieberman, with 17%. These two men finished at the very bottom of the MoveOn survey, with less than 2.5% between them.

As it happens, the first two actual Democratic contests are in Iowa and New Hampshire, states with few blacks and many liberal activists. MoveOn will probably predict these contests better than later ones, especially those in the South, where the Democratic electorate is heavily black.

The MoveOn results, which have been well covered in the press, may influence as well as predict the Democrat race. Dr. Dean's victory may boost his campaign, which has been riding high of late thanks to his unashamedly liberal, antiwar message, which resonates with the party's base. Even if one of the centrist candidates wins the nomination in the end, the left, by mobilizing early, may succeed in pulling the nominee in its direction.

Indeed, that's already happened: Last week, at a conference of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Dick Gephardt, alluding to the then-pending University of Michigan racial-preference cases, vowed that if elected he would "do executive orders to overcome any wrong thing the Supreme Court does"--never mind that the president has no such power. Mr. Gephardt apparently was trying to match Mr. Kucinich, who had made the same pledge moments earlier. John Kerry's position on the Iraq war has zigzagged--he voted for the war, but recently complained that President Bush had "deceived" him into doing so--and it's hard not to conclude that pressure from Dr. Dean is behind the zags.

Yet moving to the left may be a self-defeating proposition for Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Kerry. After all, if Dr. Dean's elixir is the cure for what ails the Democrats, why not take it at full prescription strength? And if Mr. Gephardt or Mr. Kerry does get the nomination, how does he move back toward the center in time to win independent voters in November?

The only serious candidate who's avoided the trap of moving left is Mr. Lieberman. Many commentators discount his chances, noting that he lags his opponents in fund-raising or that he's too moderate to appeal to liberal primary voters. One also hears dark whisperings from Democrats that he can't win because he's Jewish.

But Mr. Lieberman, as a member of the ticket that barely lost the 2000 election, has a singular advantage: a nonideological way of appealing to the party's base, especially black Democrats. At last month's "debate" in South Carolina, each candidate had a chance to ask another a question. Mr. Lieberman turned to Carol Moseley Braun and said that in Florida in 2000, "African-Americans . . . were deprived of their right to vote." Then he asked her: "What can we do to make sure that in 2004 every vote is counted?"

It's perilous to speculate, but it's also fun, so what the hell: What if Dr. Dean wins the first two contests, knocking out Mr. Gephardt in Iowa and Mr. Kerry in New Hampshire? That would leave Mr. Lieberman as the only centrist candidate standing in South Carolina, where the Democratic electorate is largely black. A victory by Mr. Sharpton over Mr. Lieberman would give Dr. Dean an aura of inevitability.

And what if Dr. Dean does take the Democratic nomination? The last time the Democrats nominated a far-left antiwar activist, George McGovern in 1972, the GOP won a 49-state victory. The Republicans duplicated the feat in 1984, though the magnitude of that landslide owed more to Ronald Reagan's popularity than to anything uniquely objectionable about the establishmentarian liberal Walter Mondale.

A Bush-Dean election would pit a popular Republican incumbent against a left-wing Democratic challenger. It would be as if Mr. McGovern had challenged Mr. Reagan at a time when the latter was presiding over a popular war. The District of Columbia is probably safe for the Democrats, but a 50-state sweep for Mr. Bush wouldn't be out of the question.

Even if Dr. Dean loses, he will have proved himself a pioneer in electronic campaigning. In the short life of the Internet, he has made more effective use of it than any other presidential candidate, exploiting not only but, through which more than 40,000 supporters have organized grassroots gatherings across the country.

Al Gore, the Democrat who lost the last presidential election by a hair's breadth, famously claimed in 1999 that while in Congress, he "took the initiative in creating the Internet." His party may end up wishing he hadn't.

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