Bruce Bartlett writes in NRO that Howard Dean’s chances for the nomination are greater than many would believe. I think his argument is right.
Kerry has the better poll numbers, but the poll numbers are only for those who are considered likely voters. What Dean is doing is organizing a massive volunteer option. Dean has quite possibly the best ground operation of any of the candidates. His voluteer numbers far outweigh those of any of the other candidates, and that is where Dean could come from behind.
My guess is that Dean may very well take New Hampshire, despite his lower poll numbers. What he’ll be able to do is mobilize that superior ground operation and that wide volunteer base and essentially steal the primary away from the other candidates. All it takes is a few key victories, and Dean could very well end up with a lock.
The reasons why this could happen has to do with the psychology of the Democratic Party. They see the reasons for their loss in 2000 and 2002 as being caused by the liberal wing of their party staying home or voting for Green candidates. The idea is that if they can re-energize their base, they will have enough support to win in 2004. They also have a deep-seated hatred of anything that even looks like conservatism, which instantly rules out Lieberman and Graham, and may hurt any Democrat who supported the war.
Dean is taking advantage of these two drives by being mercilous in attacking Bush and trying to run as a liberal who can defeat Bush. By arguing that only a pure-hearted liberal can get the nomination and defeat Bush, Dean is indirectly (and sometimes directly) attacking the centrist credentials and Beltway experience of the other candidates.
Will this strategy work? At this point, it’s an open question. There is little doubt that Dean has the base of the Democratic Party, but if he stumbles in the first few primaries he’ll lose his inertia. Bartlett seems to think that the Dems know that they will lose, and want to go down with a true believer in the liberal faith. I think some of them honestly think that only a true believer can defeat Bush. Either way, the political climate may just be right for a true believer like Dean to sweep the rug from the other candidates feet.
UPDATE: On the other hand, Cragg Hines of the Houston Chronicle says Dean’s Meet the Press appearance made him look unpresidential and unprepared. He’s right, but the true believers in the Dean camp are already spinning the story.