Should we expect the unexpected?

New year, new political outlook. Howard Dean, for months the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, suddenly looks vulnerable. His poll numbers are slipping and Wesley Clark is starting to seem like a genuine threat (something that I never expected to happen). Today, John Moser at No Left Turns predicted that Dean will not get the nomination, and one can begin to envisage a plausible scenario in which Moser turns out to be correct. That scenario would include a Gephardt victory in Iowa; a strong Clark showing in New Hampshire; some Clark victories in southern primaries; the withdrawal from the race of (say) Kerry, Lieberman, and Edwards; and the pick-up by Clark and/or Gephardt of most of the drop-outs’ supporters.
What has happened to Dean? Three things, I think. First, inevitably, his status as a front-runner has caused Democrats, spurred on by a media that wants a good horse race, to take a much closer look at him. Second, they have found vulnerabilities and peculiarities. This would have happened to most candidates receiving such heightened scrutiny, but it happened more so to Dean, for reasons that are well-chronicled. Third, there happens to be a Democratic contender, Clark, who does much better than Dean against President Bush in head-to-head polls, and the Democrats very much want to defeat Bush.
Will these factors be enough to sink Dean? They could be, but I don’t think they will. The reason is that the emerging un-Dean, Wesley Clark, will himself have to undergo heightened scrutiny at some point, as Gary Hart and John McCain did, for example, when they surged to the fore. And Clark has as many vulnerabilities and peculiarities as Dean. As Andrew Sullivan said today, “I think there’s a strong case to be made that Wesley Clark has popped off more offensive and outrageous slurs than Howard Dean has.” (See this Jay Nordlinger piece cited by Sullivan for examples). And Clark has the additional handicap of not being a Democrat. Indeed, it is this fact, combined to be sure with his personality and character, that induces him to be so offensive and outrageous — he needs to establish that he is a bona fide liberal, anti-war, Bush-hating Democrat.
Clark does have the virtue of outpolling Dean in the match-up with Bush, and this could continue to be the case even as the scrutiny of Clark intensifies. However, my guess is that the differences will become less pronounced as Clark continues to flame and media attention increases. In addition, many in the party will realize that, whatever polls say in February or March, come November Clark will be no stronger against Bush than Dean, and may prove weaker because he has far less appeal to the base. Finally, I have to believe (although I don’t really know) that Dean is better organized and financed in the states that will become key if primaries in the early, high-visibility states produce mixed results.
However, there are two reasons why Dean nonetheless may crash and burn. First, he may not be able emotionally to handle the adversity that he is beginning to experience. He committed many unforced errors as the clear front-runner. How will he hold up if he loses in Iowa and fails to meet expectations in New Hampshire, all while being attacked with much more abandon by his rivals and portions of the media? We may see some rather ugly, and maybe even potentially disqualifying, eruptions. Second, Clark isn’t the only alternative to Dean. There is Gephardt. Now Gephardt has weaknesses, but the electorate has already “factored them in.” I doubt that he has hidden ones that would be revealed if his candidacy picked up steam and he came under greater scrutiny. I had initially thought that a three-way race (Dean, Clark, and Gephardt) would favor Dean because he would overwhelmingly capture the leftist half (or so) of the party. However, with Clark moving further to the left, perhaps this is less clear. Maybe the three-way race would favor Gephardt. Maybe a critical mass of Democrats would rally behind the one stable candidate. You never know.
In sum, I still expect Dean to be nominated, but things certainly seem to be getting more dicey for him, and more interesting for the rest of us.

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