A kick in the shins for pundits

On Monday night, Iowa voters delivered a sharp kick in the shins to political pundits’ conventional wisdom about the 2004 campaign. Strategists and reporters, including me, had accepted some facile premises that turned out to be dubious — and the Iowa electorate was happy to set us straight.

Here's some of the "wisdom" that was called into question by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s upset win in Iowa:

  • Organization is more important than momentum: The campaigns of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt were reputed to have the best get-out-the-vote foot soldiers in Iowa. Dean and Gephardt knew who their supporters were and stayed in constant contact with them, providing transportation to the caucus sites and baby-sitting, if necessary. Yet it was the candidates who suddenly got hot at the end of the race — Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who did best in the caucuses. This time, at least, momentum beat organization.
  • The Internet and e-mail have revolutionized voter turnout: Dean has been highly successful in using his Web site and e-mail to solicit campaign funds, but turnout for Dean in Iowa was a flop. Whether a Web site and e-mail can really drive voter turnout has yet to be proven.
  • Labor unions are the most effective voter mobilizing organizations: Leaders of 21 labor unions worked hard for Gephardt in Iowa, but labor was split, with the two biggest white-collar unions, representing government employees and service workers, backing Dean. The labor-backed candidates finished third and fourth, well behind the winner, Kerry. The union members seem to have disregarded the urging of their leaders.
  • Dean has a unique connection with the younger, technically savvy voters who use the Internet: NBC News entrance poll interviews indicated that only 40 percent of the caucus goers got political information from the Internet, and Kerry won those. He took the support of 33 percent of such voters to 24 percent for Dean and 22 percent for Edwards.
  • Dean will bring in a wave of new, younger voters: Among voters ages 18 to 24, Kerry did 10 percentage points better than Dean, according to entrance poll interviews. Kerry also won the backing of 36 percent of the first-time caucus attendees, while Dean took only 22 percent, behind the 24 percent who backed Edwards.
  • If the Democrats nominate a Washington insider, they won’t win: The verdict isn’t yet in on this proposition. But Democratic voters in Iowa seemed to prefer the insider: Kerry has served in Washington since 1984.
  • In a caucus, opinion polls really do not give you a true reading ahead of time of how people will vote: This was demonstrably false: The Des Moines Register poll published Sunday morning accurately forecast the order of finish in Iowa and predicted Dean’s vote within 2 percentage points. The Register poll said he’d get 20 percent; he got 18 percent.