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January 7, 2004
Dean Gathers Some Establishment Momentum

The AP published a poll of Democratic "superdelegates" -- those electors who by Democratic Party rules are free to vote their own mind regardless of primary/caucus results in their state -- and Dean has done surprisingly well, capturing 31% of those who have decided on a candidate:

In the first "ballots" cast of the 2004 race, the former Vermont governor has endorsements or pledges of support from 80 Democratic "superdelegates" — elected officials and other party officials who will help select a nominee at this July's convention. Rival Dick Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader who has served as Missouri congressman for 28 years, has the backing of 57 superdelegates. Four-term Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has the support of 50.

Among the remaining candidates, three-term Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the 2000 vice presidential nominee, has 25 superdelegates, while Wesley Clark, the retired general who has never held elected office, has 22. First-term Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has 15.

Dean's 31% puts him somewhere above his most recent polling numbers of 24%, suggesting that the Democratic establishment may not be as adverse to Dean as first thought, or that the superdelegates may tend to be more radical than the mainstream. If the latter turns out to be the case, it will be a sharp rebuke to the Democrats' superdelegate mechanism, which was designed specifically to resist the hijacking of a nomination by a candidate too far outside the mainstream (and also a split convention).

Superdelegates comprise about 17% of the total number of delegates, and even if Dean were to attract most of them, if he can't pull his numbers any higher than 24-27%, he will have a difficult time locking up the nomination before the convention. More than anyone else, an early front-runner loses ground by not gaining, and Dean hasn't added any support in almost a month. I can't see Dean losing the nomination outright in the primaries, but he may be vulnerable to not winning the nomination outright in the primaries. While there are multiple viable candidates in the race, in the early primaries, I think Dean's plurality will be enough to carry most states. But as candidates drop out, if Dean can't expand beyond the most virulent Bush-haters, then Clark may start winning enough primaries to matter, especially in the South. Superdelegates can change their minds at any time, and if it starts looking close, neither candidate may have a clear majority of delegates before the convention. Regional players like Edwards and Kerry may capture enough delegates to absolutely guarantee no candidate will have a majority.

What happens then? Normal delegates are only required to vote the primary election results on the first ballot. If Dean can't carry the nomination on the first ballot, he never will. The establishment, including the superdelegates, will then look for an electable candidate for the top of the ticket and hope Dean will ride the bottom half. I don't think they'll pick the newest Democrat in the race, either; my guess is that in a split convention, John Edwards could get a much closer look as a viable Presidential candidate, but a Hillary rescue may also be in the cards. Al Gore could also be an option, and he would have the advantage of having stayed out of the bruising primaries, keeping his jersey clean for the big game.

But if Dean is locked out of the top half of the ticket, there is no guarantee he would agree to the VP slot, and what happens with his partisans? Do they meekly go out and support the ticket? I don't think so, except maybe if Al Gore is selected -- perhaps another reason for his surprise endorsement. [Is he that clever?] I think an open convention practically guarantees a meltdown in the Democratic Party. If Dean can't storm the primaries and bring in a majority, he clearly can't match up against Bush and won't get the nomination at all. But if he's locked out of the ticket, the damage will be so great that even nominating Hillary will produce an epic disaster up and down the ballot nationwide for Democrats. It's looking like Dean's momentum loss is producing all sorts of options for the Democrats, and they're all bad.

Karl Rove must be thrilled with the polling today without even looking at Bush's numbers.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 7, 2004 8:23 AM

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