What Republicans Think They Know About Democrats
By Chuck Todd
Wednesday, April 30, 2003
One of the striking things "On The Trail" keeps hearing about the
2004 Democratic presidential campaign is a conclusion shared by lots of
smart Republicans and conservatives: They believe President Bush's
opponent either will be or should be Missouri Rep.
Dick Gephardt (D).
Dick Gephardt's resume is ideally
suited to winning a Republican presidential nomination.
What makes this so striking is that it is hard to find a smart
Democratic strategist not affiliated with Gephardt who believes the
long-time party leader will make it much past Iowa or New Hampshire, let
alone win the nomination.
Do Republicans understand Democratic politics better than Dems
themselves? Or are Republicans handicapping the primary through the lens
of their own history?
Obviously, we won't know the answer to that question for at least 10
months, but we can get behind the thinking of the Republicans and their
bullish Gephardt views.
Think about the Republican presidential nominating process. More
times than not, the winner of their primary campaigns is a candidate who
has run and lost before. Of the last five GOP presidential nominating
contests that did not involve an incumbent, only one first-time
candidate won the nomination on their first try -- the current
president. And one could argue that Bush was really running his family's
fourth presidential campaign.
For Democrats, however, it's been just the reverse. Dating back to
1972, just one eventual nominee in a contested primary situation that
included no incumbent had run once before: Al Gore in 2000. In
the current Democratic field, only Gephardt has run before -- though
that could change if former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart (D)
officially gets in.
Another important factor in GOP presidential primaries is
establishment support. Think about the GOP presidential nominees dating
back to Richard Nixon. Each enjoyed the backing of much of the
establishment crowd -- be it the money crowd or the lawmaker crowd. The
eventual GOP nominee was the early front-runner from the get-go.
Contrast that to Democratic presidential campaign history since 1972.
Just two eventual nominees in non-incumbent contested primaries were the
early establishment choices: Gore in 2000 and Walter Mondale in
Finally, another key to winning GOP presidential nominations is
having a solid foothold in the party's base. Although it's debatable
whether Bob Dole was the one with the deepest support among the
GOP faithful in his 1996 primary bid, every other recent example for the
GOP supports the base conclusion.
Again, Democrats offer a near-mirror image. How often has the most
liberal establishment candidate with deepest connections to one of the
party's key voting bases (say, labor) won? Mondale in 1984, and one
could argue George McGovern in 1972, though his base was the
anti-war crowd. The other nominees had no obvious connections to any of
the supposed key voting/support bases of the party, at least in
comparison to the candidates they defeated in those presidential primary
Bottom line: Dick Gephardt's resume is ideally suited to winning a
GOP presidential nomination, and arguably ill-suited to win a Democratic
Party spat. One party embraces its establishment; the other is more
comfortable bucking it.
There are also a couple intangibles that play to Gephardt's advantage
when it comes to GOP handicapping. First, Republicans are always
conscientious of the electoral map, and they just can't fathom why more
Democrats don't see Gephardt's Missouri appeal. The second intangible is
the war in Iraq. Gephardt's support was key to getting the resolution
through Congress, essentially preventing Democrats from taking a bigger
hit for appearing to oppose a popular president than the party did in
2002. But again, when was the last time Democrats awarded their
nomination to someone out of loyalty?
This is not to say we don't believe Gephardt can win -- "On The
argued just before the 2002 elections that Gephardt should get
consideration as the incoming front-runner (which might have been the
case -- had Democrats picked up a House seat or two). And on a personal
level, there's probably not a more genuine and decent public servant in
But as of today, Democratic history might not be on his side. Then
again, maybe Republicans are in a better position right now to see the
Gephardt forest through the primary trees. We'll see soon enough.
Won The Month
It's time again to crown a Democrat as our 2004 candidate of the
month. Considering that April was dominated by the Federal Election
Commission reports, it's hard not to reward
John Edwards. His very impressive first-quarter showing was
probably enough to erase any doubts some had that he was going to follow
through with his campaign. Believe it or not, we heard from a lot of
smart Democrats who believed Edwards was running just to build 2008 name
That said, Edwards' money primary victory lost a bit of its shine
when it was reported that at least one of his many $2,000 legal-related
contributors was reimbursed by her boss for the donation. It's something
Edwards' primary opponents had been whispering about for reporters to
check all during the first quarter, and sure enough, reporters found at
least one funnel donor.
The fact that the Edwards funneler heads a Little Rock law firm just
rubs salt into this financial wound. That tidbit is something we're sure
will be repeated by Edwards' opponents down the road.
Can't you picture it? Ominous background music... black-and-white
photos of Bill Clinton and Webb Hubbell... and the
voiceover: "Remember the last southern Democrat connected to the
financial shenanigans of a Little Rock law firm? And we thought Edwards
represented only the positive side of Clinton."
Would such an ad be considered nasty? Even borderline out-of-bounds?
Sure. Does anybody believe someone wouldn't air something like
it? Of course not.
Where The Candidates Stand
As for our overall standings, here's where we see the field at the end
of four months of 2003 campaigning:
John Kerry (last month: 1): One of the minor surprises of
Kerry's FEC reports was the relatively low financial burn rate from
what was supposedly a bloated campaign. In contrast, we found a
campaign that had more staffers in more states than any other
campaign, and had more cash-on-hand, too. Kerry's campaign is much
more streamlined than some of his opponents would like to believe.
Edwards (last month: 3): His impressive first-quarter fund
raising means he probably has bought his ticket through the Feb. 3,
2004, primaries -- something only he and Kerry can honestly say at
this point. The rest of the field is trying to clear hurdles to make
it past Iowa and New Hampshire.
Gephardt (last month: 2): We've said this before, but it bears
repeating: The Gephardt team deserves major kudos for downplaying the
candidate's fund-raising expectations. Gephardt should have been
expected to hang dollar-for-dollar with Kerry and Edwards, and yet he
avoided that comparison. Still, he needs a strong second quarter if he
hopes to have the resources to hold off Kerry and Edwards in Iowa.
It's not a done deal for Gephardt in Iowa, and the other more
well-funded campaigns know it.
Howard Dean (last month: 4): When this campaign is over, will
we know Dean as "one-note Howie"? No matter how little Democrats want
to talk about the war, Dean still seems to bring it up. He's picking
fights with the field over Iraq, even as the country universally
praises Bush. It's a risky move; this Saturday's South Carolina debate
should include some really interesting Dean vs. Kerry fireworks.
Joe Lieberman (last month: 5): No one can accuse the
campaign of ducking expectations when it comes to the second-quarter
FEC report. Lieberman's finance director told a Florida paper last
week that Lieberman has to average $2.3 million a month or
they're in trouble. We could not have said it better ourselves.
Bob Graham (last month: 6): Florida reporters seemed impressed
by Graham's $1 million, while the national press corps is willing to
wait and see how the second-quarter money flows. His first major TV
appearance on "This Week" had highs and lows. Graham showed real
promise as a TV performer, knocking the first questions out of the
park, but he also revealed a tendency to veer off topic and even
appear halting in his speaking style. It may disappoint some of
issue-minded readers, but style points matter more right now than
substance, and Graham still has some work to do on that front --
something he readily admits.
As for the rest of the field... keep an eye on
Dennis Kucinich as a potential Iowa muckraker. Every vote he
gets is one less available for Dean. Kucinich is hiring an Iowa staff
and seems to be taking the state more seriously than the other
third-tier candidates (including Hart, Al Sharpton and Carol
Moseley Braun) That could mean big, big trouble for those candidates
courting the left (yes, we mean you, Dr. Dean).
Chuck Todd is editor-in-chief of The Hotline, National
Journal's daily briefing on politics. His e-mail address is