They say history never repeats, but it definitely often rhymes. We’ve read an awful lot of breathless commentary comparing Bernie Sanders and the insurgent campaign of Howard Dean in 2004. Sure, they’re both from Vermont, they both have unabashedly progressive agendas, and they both (unexpectedly) raised a ton of money from hundreds of thousands of supporters.
But 2016’s Howard Dean isn’t Bernie Sanders – it’s Donald Trump.
Look at the evidence. First, both have communicated with authentic candor (to put it nicely). From disparaging [crscore]John McCain[/crscore]’s heroic war record to last week’s attack on Ben Carson’s “pathological disease,” Trump has defied every conventional law of politics with his barbs. But what’s more important is that he’s reflecting the voice of every frustrated voter we poll in our surveys and listen to in our focus groups.
In politics, message matters most. And lest we forget, Howard Dean was the original no-nonsense presidential candidate. Appealing to “guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,” and his heated opposition to the Iraq war, his tell-it-like-it-is approach emboldened his supporters and enraged his critics.
Dean took on his own party with as much gusto as Trump attacks his fellow Republicans. Dean’s pithy line about how, “I’ll represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” led to hand-wringing and bed-wetting across the Democratic establishment, who had meekly acquiesced to Bush’s War on Terror. He once said, “I say what I think and I believe what I say, and I’m willing to say things that are not popular… but that ordinary people know are right.” Sound familiar?
Second, both have tapped into their respective base with over-the-top negativity toward their perceived enemies. For Trump, it’s Hispanic immigrants, China, and any critic dumb enough to invade his Twitter-sphere. When it comes to The Donald, you’re either with him or against him – and this is what his supporters love. The madder he makes the mainstream… the deeper their rapture.
For Dean, it was Republicans – and especially the liberals’ bête noire, President George W. Bush. Though some of what he said as a candidate (a “psychological situation that he has with his father” causing Bush’s bellicosity towards Iraq) seem tame to his days as DNC chair (“I hate Republicans and everything they stand for”), the anger is the same. That’s the emotional kindling that fires the base in a way that conventional candidates can’t. Just ask John Kerry … and Jeb Bush.
Third, while both are fuzzy on the specifics, Dean and Trump use similar language about ‘rebuilding America.’ For Trump: “Make America Great Again!” by negotiating ‘smart’ deals and walling off Mexico. For Dean: “Take America Back!” by taxing the rich and neutering Wall Street.
Even the questions that Trump faces today are the same ones that Dean faced in 2004. Will his supporters start to peel away as votes get closer? Will they get nervous that he can’t win the general election and jump ship to a more electable candidate? (Out of two dozen head-to-head polls since May, Trump has only led Hillary Clinton twice.)
In the end, the voters we talk in our focus groups with place great emphasis on “electability,” which contributed mightily to Dean’s ultimate doom. Despite his early high-water mark as a strong frontrunner, few gave him a realistic chance of beating Bush in 2004 – long before his slide to a distant third-place finish in Iowa.
Make no mistake: Donald Trump has no intention of quietly fading to black. He is a genuine political phenomenon. So, for a time, was Howard Dean. But when the end came for him, it came quickly. The striking similarities between the two campaigns offer a compelling preview of Trump’s ultimate electoral fate.
David Merritt has been an advisor to three Republican presidential campaigns. He is currently managing director at Luntz Global Partners, the communications firm led by pollster Frank Luntz.