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Sauce for the goose: political convention wisdom

By Jackson Murphy
web posted January 19, 2004

On the eve of the Iowa caucuses the one interesting and truly unpredictable thing to watch is which of the political conventional wisdoms, if any, will come true. Tune in any cable news channel and there will be pundits and politicos of all shapes and sizes talking about the "ground game", that there is only "three tickets out of Iowa", and of course the "Big Mo."

As soon as you realize that the "Big Mo" isn't Rep. Richard Gephardt's campaign nickname but secret code for the illusive political force known as momentum you're on the right track. And the sooner you realize that these sideline commentators are more interested in the drama of the race the better.

Even sweaters haven't made Howard Dean more beloved
Even sweaters haven't made Howard Dean more beloved

"It is true the press wants a race," writes Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. "They don't want to spend the next three months filing ‘Dean Wins Again' and ‘Why Kerry Failed to Ignite.' But it's more than that. Reading between the lines and listening between the lines, it's hard to avoid the thought that reporters don't really like Mr. Dean. The last time a viable Democrat rose, in 1992, the columnists for the newsmagazines and profile writers for the newspapers loved Bill Clinton with a throbbing love. None of those columns are being written now. They don't love Mr. Dean."

The name of the game is the idea of the big game itself rather than who wins or loses. Besides conventional wisdoms wouldn't very fun unless they were broken every once and awhile. So maybe the press doesn't need to love its favorite candidate either.

In Iowa the polls everyone followed so closely for months are now being tossed aside faster than a Britney Spears wedding. Reporters and politicians alike spent months following the polls in Iowa, now that they show a race tightening. When asked what the three most important things are in the race at this point one CNN reporter repeated at least twice, "organization, organization, organization."

While it's true, Iowa's caucuses are different, and organization matters. "A campaign organization can," writes Adam Nagourney of The New York Times. "By recruiting supporters and getting them to the meetings on Monday, overcome any qualms about a candidate — and that clearly was how Dr. Dean's aides were hoping to carry him out of this valley."

Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace asked what organization meant to the Dean camp and campaign manager Joe Trippi confidently said, "Oh, three, four points."

Add to this "organizationalization" of the campaign, the always-debatable notions of the "ground game" and "hard count" and you'll think this is sports strategy. In Iowa a campaign can get fairly good at predicting whom they can depend on to show up and vote. With the poll numbers going into the Caucuses showing Kerry in the lead, now Dean just has to win by any margin to walk away with a big victory. It's a win-win.

Having said all this about the surging campaigns of the two Johns, Sen. John Kerry and Sen. John Edwards, it is undeniable that Gov. Dean and Rep. Gephardt have the strongest organizations in the state. This is the conflict between the "Big Mo" and organization. The Associated Press' Ron Fournier reports that the conventional wisdom on organization might be trumped by the conventional wisdom of momentum. "Though odds are still stacked against them, Kerry and Edwards could use momentum to overcome a lack of political muscle."

Gauging momentum is more like reading the tealeaves than a hard science. "Momentum, the holy grail of political campaigns," writes Carl Hulse in The New York Times. "is evidently spreading through the Democratic presidential candidates like the flu."

This leads us into another. Gephardt has to win Iowa or there will be a political sized fork stuck in him on Monday night declaring him done. MSNBC's Howard Fineman writes, "The paradox for you is that everything depends on Iowa — but even if you win it you can't expect to get much of a bounce. You are nowhere in New Hampshire, and never will be." Now that's conventional wisdom.

But let's not forget that only three people will get a "ticket" out of Iowa to carry on in the campaign. Which is a good thing since Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. Joe Lieberman aren't even contesting it-so that should leave us with five candidates come Tuesday right. In fact, some talking heads are already hedging their bets on the wisdom that Iowa will again naturally winnow the field by acting as the political grim reaper.

"Depending on the order of finish, all of the major candidates who competed here," writes Ronald Brownstein in The Los Angeles Times. "Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina — could wake up Tuesday with enough strength and credibility to sustain their campaigns."

And if we wake up on Tuesday and all four candidates are still standing, be comforted that there will be more conventional wisdom to explain Iowa's results and what happens next. That's the great thing about conventional wisdom. There is always lots of it to go around and if it's good enough for them it'll be good enough for us.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He is a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7.

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