Wisconsin's Warning Signs
by Doug Ireland

February 19, 2004
First Published in Tom Paine.com

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A close reading of the Wisconsin exit polls ought to have Democrats rather worried about John Kerry’s chances of taking back the White House. In the Forward State’s open primary, Kerry got trounced by nearly 2-1 among independent voters, who preferred John Edwards. Kerry also lost the suburbs. And, in what is shaping up as another close presidential election in November, it is once again independent and suburban voters who will decide the winner.

Wisconsin’s Democrats joined the lemming-like rush to hop on the bandwagon for Kerry, who won them by nearly the same numbers he lost the independents. But voters in the exit polls also showed that, while they’re prepared to acquiesce in Kerry’s coronation, they are remarkably lacking in enthusiasm for him. In fact, they don’t really like him all that much.

In the category of those who preferred a candidate who "cares about me," Kerry again was pummeled by Edwards, the policy-thin populist, by 17 points. Even more telling, asked who has the "right temperament," the same folks who handed Kerry a narrow victory said they found Kerry wanting, by a whopping 55 percent for Edwards to a pitiful 14 percent for Kerry.

Following the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries which made him the undisputed front-runner, Kerry—who won in Iowa by his nothing-to-lose transformation into a fiery anti-Bush populist—has increasingly retreated into his normal don’t-offend-anyone mode. He reverted to the soporific, rather pompous speaking style which held him back months ago at the same time as Dean’s unscripted perorations tapped the zeitgeist of the Democratic base. If Kerry does not use the long months between now and the Boston convention to stake out some bolder positions capable of energizing that base, and instead sits cautiously on his insurmountable lead as the winner of 15 of the 17 state contests so far as he parades through the remaining primaries, he risks arriving in Boston with support for his candidacy broad but thin, as it was in Wisconsin.

Moreover, the folly of the Terry McAuliffe-Clintonista scheme to drastically alter the primary calendar and bunch the determinant contests early in the year should now be clear. As the virtual nominee, Kerry is now out there as a sitting target for the lavishly funded Bush-Rove propaganda machine for some four-and-a-half months more than the Democrats’ White House postulant would have endured under the old primary schedule. The Republicans have already released their first anti-Kerry ad, and with a projected 3-1 money advantage over the Dems, they’ve announced (and can easily afford without the slightest strain) an early TV blitz that will begin soon. With Edwards’ Wisconsin performance forcing Kerry to put on a real campaign for the next several rounds of primaries, Kerry will be forced to spend much of the money he’s raising now—which he needs for the fall campaign—to finish off Edwards, and so will be unable to directly riposte the GOP’s pre-Boston air war against him.

Kerry’s eventual nomination is not placed in doubt by the Wisconsin results, of course. Edwards cannot repeat his come-from-behind Wisconsin performance—which he owes to the independents and Republicans whose crossovers accounted for a third of the total votes there—in the Northern and Western Super Tuesday states, which don’t have open primaries. And his campaign is broke, which means he can’t outspend Kerry on TV (as he did in Wisconsin by some $320,000 to JFK’s $250,000). In fact, it’s not until Edwards arrives in the March 9 Deep South primaries that he has even the glimmer of a hope of winning a state other than the one he was born in, his sole victory thus far. And by that time, crushing defeats at the hands of Kerry in places like California and New York—where the Democratic base is infinitely more liberal than Edwards—will considerably have dampened the North Carolinian’s brief, post-Wisconsin bubble of media momentum. Edwards may well also be hurt by the new media scrutiny to which he’ll probably be subjected post-Wisconsin—voters may not like it when they find out that the senator with the toothy grin has considerably exaggerated his poor-boy roots, and that his father was a comfortably off part of management for most of his career, not an impoverished simple mill worker as Edwards has claimed.

More worries for the Democrats: Once crowned, Kerry will be face to face with the fact that the same polls which have shown recent ticks downward in Bush’s credibility and approval also show that a majority of voters still find Dubya likeable. Kerry has a likeability gap—and people want to be able to like their president. Apart from such intangibles of personality, there’s a very good reason that only three senators have ever been elected president in the history of the Republic: senators—especially two-decade veterans of the Beltway like Kerry—have voting records, which can be exploited by their opponents to great effect. There’s also a lot in Kerry’s personal history which the Republicans’ opposition research specialists are already at work exhuming—many clues to future GOP attacks can be found in The Boston Globe’s comprehensive seven-part Kerry profile, which ought to be a must-read for those Democrats who want a real understanding of what their soon-to-be nominee is all about.

There is also the fact that Kerry’s wife is, well, rather special—she and the $800 million fortune she wed in her first nuptials may not wear well on the campaign trail. Jay Leno got a huge laugh from his largely Middle-American studio audience recently when he cracked that "John Kerry has found a way to solve the federal budget deficit—find a rich country, like Switzerland, and marry it! "

Mrs. Heinz Kerry comes across on the tube as projecting even less warmth than her husband. This could be seen clearly on the podium where Kerry delivered his Wisconsin victory speech: she did not look like a happy camper, and—after a week of intern rumors—ostentatiously avoided the lip-kiss which Kerry tried to plant on her. Laura Bush, well-schooled in the dangers of the camera’s eye, would not have made that mistake.

Doug Ireland is a New York-based media critic and commentator whose articles appear regularly in The Nation, Tom Paine.com, and In These Times among many others. This article first appeared in the Tom Paine.com.

Other Articles by Doug Ireland

* The Campaign Doctor: Can Bob Shrum Beat Karl Rove?
* The Two John Kerrys: Will We Get the Populist or the Lord of Special Interests?
* Howard's End
* A Populist Make-Over: Meet John Edwards, the Corporate Man
* Iowa's Lessons
* Nader and the Newmanites
* The Next War
* Will the French Indict Cheney







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