front-run*ner also front*run*ner (frnt’rnr’) n.
1. One that is in a leading position in a race or other competition: the front-runner for the presidential nomination.
2. A competitor who performs best when in the lead.
— Webster’s Dictionary
Howard Dean ended his campaign Wednesday, and to say it was a roller coaster would be like saying Paris Hilton is thin. From virtually unknown to supposed front-runner last fall to winless in umpteen primaries and caucuses, Dean’s campaign is unlike any in recent memory.
Many pundits have labeled Dean’s campaign a titanic failure, as most assumed he would be a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. And with the endorsement of countless politicians, a humongous war chest in campaign contributions and strong pre-election poll numbers, you could hardly blame them.
But the know-it-alls on cable news and opinion pages (and even perhaps Dean himself) were suckered into the biggest fallacy of this election: that Dean was the front-runner. As stated at the top of this column, a front-runner is one in a leading position, and Dean was never in a leading position in this election. To label Dean the front-runner before the Iowa caucuses would be like insisting that a sprinter is in the lead before the starter’s gun was fired.
Yes, he led the polls last fall, and had raised more money than any candidate, but as they say in New York, that and $2 will get you a subway token. Those polls are normally biased, not toward one party or candidate, but to those who actually want to answer a poll. If a pollster called me and asked if I wanted to answer a poll, I’d politely decline and keep watching American Idol. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to take the time out to vote this year; it just means I don’t want my life interrupted by an unexpected phone call. I’m guessing that many voters feel the same way. Dean’s supporters, who are some of the most vocal contingents around, would likely skew any preliminary poll because they want to get their message out to the public.
As undecided as many Americans can be, most don’t know who they’ll vote for until their primary comes around, so any poll more than a month before an election should be viewed as decidedly premature, not a prediction of a final result.
Without Dean, this election would likely have been a replay of the 2000 election, with John Kerry, the humdrum Democratic candidate (instead of Al Gore), likely spouting tired rhetoric indistinguishable from that of President George W. Bush. If that were the case, President Bush would be re-elected easily.
Instead, Dean’s straight-talking anti-Bush mentality was at best co-opted by the other Democratic candidates, just soon enough for them to sound genuine. If Kerry is now the face of the party, Dean is the voice. Dean’s issues (anti-war, anti-tax cuts, universal healthcare) became the party’s issues. In essence, they wrapped Dean’s message in more tolerable packages. As a result, now the Democrats have a puncher’s chance at the White House in November.
Still, with the help of the Internet and thousands of college-aged supporters, Dean led the most successful insurgent campaign since Jesse Jackson in 1988. Dean was more successful than Ralph Nader at changing the climate of discourse in the nation’s Capitol. While Nader mobilized young people against both parties, Dean capitalized on voter disgust and courted them toward the Democratic party, thus giving Democrats an identity and disenfranchised voters a party.
To say Dean’s campaign was a failure would be missing the point. He has done a brilliant job at shifting his party toward voters, a remarkable achievement. If nothing else, empowering and mobilizing fervent voters to embrace the Democratic Party is proof that Dean’s campaign was successful.
Hopefully, Dean’s supporters will still support him at the polls. Even though he’s ended his campaign, his name will still be on the ballot. Their votes will mean as much as those in previous primaries, and when the Democratic National Convention takes place in Boston this summer, their message will ring loud and clear.
Andrew Pina is a post graduate majoring in humanities and a contributing editor at The Oracle.