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Why you shouldn’t be paying attention to Iowa polling right now (even if you can’t help yourself)

Current polls of Iowans’ preferences should be viewed with something stronger than caution.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaking at the 2019 Iowa Democratic Hall of Fame Celebration in Cedar Rapids on Sunday.
MinnPost photo by Lorie Shaull

I’m a fool, but at least I know it. I can’t quite stop myself from looking at the latest poll results out of Iowa. Maybe you can’t either. But I know better. I was in Iowa for the Howard Dean meltdown — and no, it didn’t happen because he screamed.

During my now-ridiculously-long career in the scribbling racket, 2004 was the only cycle I got to race around Iowa, talking to Iowans and listening to presidential candidates speak to seriously small crowds and to generally cover the Iowa caucuses, for my then-employer, the Strib.

I learned some lessons that I still carry with me, and we are approaching the exact point at which they are most applicable: namely the run-up to Iowa when the Democratic hopefuls are all going there and polls of the current preferences of Iowa Democrats are being treated as meaningful indicators of whom they will support more than six months from now. But they are not meaningful indicators.

Iowa is a wonderful state, but not so very special that it should be permanently assigned a way-above-average role in sorting the presidential field. Not Iowa, not New Hampshire, no state should have that role. Why should having a special appeal to Iowans (or the Granite Staters of New Hampshire) have any weight greater than having a special appeal to any other state? Some sort of regular rotation should occur so that no state or states are always first.

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If I had my way, we would group the 50 states into ten groups of five, or five groups of ten, and then rotate the order from one presidential cycle to the next so that each group had a chance to be first. And each group should be geographically balanced so that a candidate’s regional strengths and weaknesses would be demonstrated.

I assume nothing this fair, balanced and smart will happen. But it should.

The Dean moment

To further illustrate some of the absurdities of the existing system, allow me to recap what happened in 2004, the year of Howard Dean, the one year I was racing around Iowa.

Dr. Dean, a little-known governor of Vermont, launched a longshot bid for president but rose to front-runner status with a platform that focused on the need for a universal health care system and to bring home the U.S. troops from the developing quagmire after the Iraq War. Dean caught on, big-time.

In the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, Dean was endorsed by the Dems’ titular head (because he was their 2000 nominee) former Vice President Al Gore, and by Gore’s chief rival for the 2000 nomination, Sen. Bill Bradley and by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who was viewed as influential in, y’know, Iowa.

Almost by consensus, Dean became the front-runner before a single delegate had been chosen.

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But Dean ended up finishing a weak third in the Iowa caucuses, an even weaker third in the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire (even though he was from neighboring Vermont) and dropped out after another third-place finish in the Wisconsin primary.

So, to make the obvious point, current polls of Iowans’ preferences, which show big leads for the top two — Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — should be viewed with something stronger than caution.

What happened to Dean in Iowa in 2004? A lot of things. U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri was also seeking the nomination and felt that, especially hailing from a neighboring state, he had to beat Dean in Missouri. He failed miserably, but he did flood the airwaves with nasty ads about Dean. Dean replied with ads against Gephardt.

There is a theory that when a war of nasty attacks between two candidates gets going, it’s best to be neither the attacker nor the attackee. And that seems to have happened in this case. Two candidates who were neither airing nor targeted by nasty ads, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina ended up finishing first and second in the 2004 Iowa caucuses, with support from a combined 69 percent of caucus attendees.

Dean and Gephardt finished third and fourth with a combined 29 percent. The changes from the polls happened very fast, in the last weeks of the race. I expect some big changes in the run-up to the caucuses in January. I don’t claim to know who will benefit from it.

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Oh yeah, the scream. This is a great example of the gap between legends and reality.

At what was supposed to be his victory party right after the caucuses, Dean decided to show confidence and resolve (can’t blame him for that) and to assure his supporters that he wasn’t going to quit the race despite his disappointing showing.

He told his supporters that finishing third in Iowa was pretty darn good, considering that hardly anyone outside of Vermont had even heard of him a year earlier. And he promised to go on to New Hampshire and then on to … (he rattled off a list of states that he would also go on to, including many that he did not end up going on to).

And, at the end of the list, he promised to go on to “Washington D.C. to take back the White House.” And to punctuate the list, with a big smile to back up his show of confidence, he punched the air and yelled “yaaah.” It was a happy-sounding yell, perhaps a bit forced, but definitely not evidence of anger or lunacy as is usually suggested when the tale of how Dean lost because he screamed is falsely told.

You can view the actual remarks here:

And, of course, since it was after his collapse in the polls and poor showing in Iowa, it’s pretty clear it didn’t cause the collapse, based on the laws of the space-time continuum.

Dean did not go on to all those states. He lost another primary or two, then withdrew from the race for the nomination, which Kerry eventually won. Kerry chose Edwards as his running-mate, and they lost narrowly to the incumbent ticket of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.