Political pundits (amateur and professional alike--the difference being professionals get to appear on television) have a tendency to frame a race in comparison to the most recent political cycle. While such a comparison can occasionally lend insight, it can just as often be misleading, which seems to be the case with one comparison in particular this cycle.
Earlier this month, Democratic contender John Edwards told reporters, "I lived through the inevitability of Howard Dean." It was a not so veiled shot at frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who has been widening her lead of late in Iowa, New Hampshire, and national polling. Many in the media and across the blogosphere bought into the idea, for a variety of reasons. Some are simply anti-Hillary, willing to write anything that ends with the grand collapse of her campaign. Others are in Hillary-denial mode, hoping she won't win the nomination and thus eager to buy into the Dean comparison. Those in the media who expound the comparison most likely do so because it makes for a better story--covering a runaway is just no fun.
Comparisons of the '03-'04 campaign of Howard Dean to the current Clinton campaign--and yes, we're guilty of doing it too--are simply not that accurate. It's true that both Clinton and Dean were Democratic frontrunners for the nomination in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses. It's also probably true that Clinton has inflated poll numbers because voters haven't become fully engaged in the process and the support is softer than it would be in January--a similar case could be made for the former Vermont governor. While Clinton, like Dean, may end up losing the party's nomination, it won't be because she ran a comparable campaign or was a truly similar candidate.
First, there is a great deal of difference between Clinton's frontrunner status now and Dean's frontrunner status in late 2003. Clinton has been running as the establishment frontrunner since the campaign began, while Dean was a little known outsider challenging the system. Clinton is married to the last Democratic president and has picked up more Congressional endorsements than all of her top rivals combined. Dean campaigned against the Democratic establishment--noting in a speech to the Democratic National Committee in early 2003 that he represents the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." His endorsement from former Vice President Al Gore was more an outlier than a representation of party support.
Second, Dean's support was never as strong as Clinton's poll standing is now. At this point in 2003, Dean was locked in a tight contest with Dick Gephardt in Iowa, while he had a comfortable lead in New Hampshire, and national lead. Clinton is also engaged in a close Iowa battle, though polling shows her beginning to pull away somewhat. Their New Hampshire leads are similar, but several national polls have shown Clinton eclipsing 50% support--something Dean never came close to accomplishing. Clinton has thrived as the frontrunner, while Dean faltered when forced to carry the label.
The two also ran in vastly different environments. In 2003, the party was still conflicted on how to address the Iraq War, while coming out of the 2006 elections the party was more united than at any point in recent history. Though it was Dean's anti-Iraq message that helped them regain control of Congress, it was deemed too radical in 2004. And because the party remains largely united today--Democrats are very satisfied with their candidates and are firmly together in their opposition to President Bush--they may be more willing to overlook Clinton's weaknesses or policy differences.
Clinton also has not seen the field unite against her as strongly as the field pushed against Dean in late 2003. Dean was a constant target in Democratic debates and the Gephardt campaign's late negative push in Iowa may have sealed Dean's fate (and Gephardt's as it turned out). On the contrary, Clinton has generally received positive debate reviews--avoiding mistakes and minimizing opportunities for her opponents to attack--and no rival has been as blunt as Gephardt in attacking her electability.
Finally, Clinton is running a savvier campaign with more money and a better strategy. Dean was the leading fundraiser going into Iowa, but his haul was nothing compared to the perhaps $100 million Clinton will raise this cycle. Dean also put all his eggs in one basket--he was so heavily invested in an Iowa victory that his chances of winning the nomination essentially ended with his disappointing third place finish there. He had little money left to make any comeback, while his support quickly evaporated in New Hampshire and around the country. Clinton, however, is far better positioned to survive a defeat in Iowa. In fact, she has been able to lower expectations there, which would help her explain away an Obama or Edwards victory and making any potential Clinton victory in Iowa all the more significant. Her campaign is also well prepared for the de facto national primary on February 5, ready to pump a great deal of money and resources into states across the country.
Yes, it's wrong to suggest that Clinton has the nomination locked up months before any voting has taken place. But it's also wrong to believe that because Howard Dean faltered, Clinton will too. The 2008 cycle bears little resemblance to the 2004 cycle--the landscape is different, the mood of voters in both parties has changed, and Hillary Clinton is no Howard Dean.
Cross-posted at Political Realm.