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Saturday, January 31, 2004

Neel's Strategy Memo to the Deaniacs

Thanks to alert reader Mark from Minnesota, we now have the latest strategy memo from Roy Neel, the new Howard Dean campaign chief. I'm posting it in its entirety. Neel attempts to explain the retreat announced this week from the February 3rd primaries, in what you could look at as the Ross Perot strategy:

This campaign has always defied conventional wisdom. Our extraordinary rise last year defied conventional wisdom—so did our fall in Iowa, and so did our comeback in New Hampshire after most pundits predicted Howard Dean was finished.

Conventional wisdom has been consistently wrong about this race.

So when conventional wisdom says a candidate must win somewhere on February 3, or that John Kerry will have wrapped up the nomination after fewer than 10% of the delegates have been chosen, we disagree.

Our goal for the next two and a half weeks is simple—become the last-standing alternative to John Kerry after the Wisconsin primary on February 17.

Why Wisconsin? First, it is a stand-alone primary where we believe we can run very strong. Second, it kicks off a two-week campaign for over 1,100 delegates on March 2, and the shift of the campaign that month to nearly every big state: California, New York, and Ohio on March 2, Texas and Florida on March 9, Illinois on March 16, and Pennsylvania on April 27.

In the meantime, Howard Dean is traveling to many of the February 3 states, sending surrogates—including Al Gore—to most, and conducting radio interviews in all. We believe that one or more of our major opponents will be eliminated that day, and that the others will fall by the wayside as our strength grows in the following days. As a result we have elected to not buy television advertisements in February 3 states, but instead direct our resources toward the February 7 and 8 contests in Michigan, Washington and Maine. We may not win any February 3 state, but even third place finishes will allow us to move forward, continue to amass delegates in Virginia and Tennessee on February 10, and then strongly challenge Kerry in Wisconsin.

Regardless of who takes first place in these states, we think that after Wisconsin we’ll get Kerry in the open field. Remember one crucial thing about the 2004 calendar—in previous years a front-runner or presumptive nominee would typically emerge after most of the states had voted and most of the delegates had been chosen. The final competitor to that candidate, even if he won late states, as many have done, has not been able to win a majority of delegates under any scenario.

This year is very different. The media and the party insiders will attempt to declare Kerry the winner on February 3 after fewer than 10% of the state delegates have been chosen. At that point Kerry himself will probably have claimed fewer than one third of the delegates he needs to win. They would like the campaign to be over before the voters of California, New York, Texas and nearly every other big state have spoken.

Democrats in Florida, who witnessed a perversion of democracy in November 2000, will not have a choice concerning the nominee if the media and the party insiders have their way.

We intend to make this campaign a choice. We alone of the remaining challengers to John Kerry are geared to the long haul—we’ve raised nearly $2 million in the week after Iowa, over $600,000 in the 48 hours since New Hampshire. No candidate—not even Kerry, who mortgaged his house and tapped his personal fortune to funnel $7 million into his campaign —will have sufficient funds to advertise in all, or even most, of the big states that fall on March 2 and beyond. At that point paid advertising becomes much less of a factor.

And we alone of the remaining challengers offer a clear choice to Kerry. Howard Dean is no Johnny Come Lately to the message of change—he has actually delivered change in Vermont. Howard Dean has the courage and conviction to stand up for what’s right, even when it’s not politically popular, as opposed to the cautiousness, compromise and convenience that has characterized John Kerry’s 19 years in the Senate.

We believe that when the voters of the post-Wisconsin states—which constitute 75% of the delegates that will be chosen in the states—compare Howard Dean and John Kerry, they will conclude that Dean, not Kerry, has the best chance to beat George Bush, because only Dean offers a clear vision of change and a record of results that contrasts against the rhetoric emanating from Washington. We believe they will increasingly reject the rubber stamp presented to them by the media.

Has such a strategy ever worked before?

No. It's never been tried.

But prior to this year, no candidate had ever raised $46 million dollars, mostly from ordinary Americans giving $100 each. Prior to this year no candidate for President had ever inspired the kind of grass-roots activity that has been this campaign’s hallmark. Prior to this year no candidate for President had so clearly revitalized his party, allowed it to reclaim its voice, and shifted the agenda so clearly to a call for change.

Let the conventional wisdom and the media declare this race over. We’re going to let the people decide.

Roy Neel
CEO, Dean for America

Roy Neel is not quite correct in one conclusion: this strategy has been tried, and it worked very effectively for Ross Perot in 1992. Faced with a poor organization and a chaotic third-party constituency, Perot retired from the race throughout the summer, staging a "draft" in late September to return to the national stage. While Perot didn't get elected, he did allow Bill Clinton to win with just 43% of the popular vote. Perot avoided most of the bruising trench warfare and emerged with a huge boost from the media. He played the gadfly to perfection and captured 19% of the popular vote, despite being a paranoid schizophrenic (he claimed the Bush family sabotaged his daughter's wedding).

Will this work for Dean? Maybe, although the dynamics are different. Neel proposes that after February 3 that Kerry will be the only viable candidate left. However, it's unlikely that everyone will drop out after the first Super Tuesday, which means that Dean will still have to compete against Edwards and possibly Clark in Wisconsin, where Neel proposes to make his stand for Dean. Neel is also mistaken in thinking that the media will be anxious to anoint a clear winner by next week. Where's the news in that? The media will be looking for ways to make sure that Kerry doesn't have it locked up. They want conflict and tension as long as possible to keep people tuning in and buying newspapers and magazines.

At best, this is a "strategy" borne of practical necessity. The Dean campaign has run through their money faster and to less effect than they planned, and with Dean taking an unexpected beating early, the donations are slowing down. Money and endorsements are flowing to the candidate who's winning, not talking about moral victories in finishing twelve points back in New Hampshire. Neel doesn't have the means to run an effective media campaign for February 3rd, and so he's making its absence seem strategic. The Ross Perot strategy may work, but it's more likely to have a Ross Perot result.

UPDATE: No one caught this, but I claimed that Perot captured 19% of the electoral vote, when in fact it was the popular vote. Perot didn't win any electors. I knew that but used the wrong term. (Bad Captain! No rum for you!)

Now that you have read this post, read the most recent entries at the new Captain's Quarters at http://www.captainsquartersblog.com/!

04:55 PM in DeanWatch | Permalink

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Comments

Ed, as I was thinking about this I decided that it could work with a couple of assumptions -- though that doesn't deny the likelihood that the Dean campaign has no choice but this strategy.

1. Conventional wisdom has been that there has to be a one-liberal vs. one-moderate battle at some point for the nomination, but there's no evidence of that going on. Places 3-5 in NH contained all moderates, and they polled less together than Kerry alone. If the moderate wing of the party is dead -- God knows they killed off their Sam Nunn-Scoop Jackson-Bob Kerrey wing already -- then you're playing to be king of one and only one hill. The only one that can knock Kerry off that hill is Dean. (I realize I am ignoring Sharpton -- so sue me.) In the language of public choice theory, the distribution of votes is unimodal, and there's no reason Dean couldn't yet outflank Kerry, because...

2. ...the media hasn't yet fully exposed the inconsistency in Kerry's liberalism. Standing aside and leaving the spotlight to Kerry alone is a good strategy if you think the spotlight will wear off Kerry's shine. It just might.

As Neel says, the 2/3 primaries don't play to Dean's strengths anyway -- he was to win these because he was the frontrunner, not because of any appeal. Since he's frittered the frontrunner advantage away, it makes sense to husband the resources he has left for the one big push in the states where he has the most to gain. Don't forget the stories from 2000 on voters bussed in, bribed with cigarettes, etc. That ground-level campaign could work there.

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