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What Howard Dean Can Teach Us About 2016

A bonus 2016 Slack chat this week! We’re premiering a short documentary and companion podcast today about Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign called “The Dean Scream” — the first in a series of films re-evaluating famous moments from past campaigns. So we gathered our election nerds to talk over what can be learned from Dean’s roller-coaster ride. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

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micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): So, Harry, tell us what the “Dean Scream” is and how people remember it, and then we’ll talk about why that narrative is wrong and what lessons the whole episode holds for contemporary campaign coverage.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): WAIT YOU’RE TELLING ME THE NARRATIVE WAS WRONG? UNPOSSIBLE!

micah: Nate, we know how much you love narratives.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Well, the Dean Scream is this:

Dean raised his voice after losing the Iowa caucuses in 2004. A lot of people saw this speech and said he lost control of himself. He went on to lose the New Hampshire primary and the nomination. A lot of people have said it was this speech that started this decline. The problem, of course, is that he lost Iowa before this speech — in fact, it was his concession speech. Historically, an unexpectedly poor performance in Iowa has led to a decline in New Hampshire polling. Additionally, he was already losing ground in New Hampshire polls. So the fact that he lost New Hampshire and then the nomination would have been perfectly expected even without the speech in question.

natesilver: According to our polling average — well, FiveThirtyEight didn’t exist back then, but this is what you’d get if you calculated a polling average in the same manner we do now — Dean peaked at 29 percent in Iowa about 12 days before the voting there.

His polling average was down to 22 percent on the night of the caucuses. Then he actually got 18 percent at the caucus itself.

So that’s an 11 percentage point drop BEFORE the Scream ever happened.

harry: Right, Dean was falling off in both Iowa and New Hampshire before the Scream occurred.

natesilver: For Dean, A Scream

harry: What’s funny is that Dean only came across as screaming on TV, where the crowd noise was toned down.

micah: Yeah, in the room it didn’t seem out of place, right?

harry: That’s right. So no one in the room realized what Dean had done. Oftentimes, things seem one way on television and another in person.

natesilver: The New York Times write-up of the evening didn’t really mention the Dean Scream. “At a rally later Monday evening, Dr. Dean — his sleeves rolled up, bellowing to the crowd and smiling as if [he] had in fact won the race — celebrated his showing.” OK, there’s a reference to “bellowing,” but absolutely zero sense that a huge gaffe had been committed.

micah: So how did it become such a big deal?

natesilver: Because the herd mentality in the political press pool is incredibly strong.

harry: And keep in mind, the day afterward it was already in full swing on the evening newscasts:

But I think it became a big deal because all of a sudden Dean, who had a lead in New Hampshire, dropped in the polls. People are always trying to tie a drop in the polls to an event. In this case, the sexy option was to choose the scream.

natesilver: One thing you see all the time is that the press declares a candidate is gaining or losing “momentum” only AFTER there’s been a change in the polls. They were still insisting that Mitt Romney had “momentum” well after he had stopped moving up in the polls in October 2012, for example, and things were shifting back to Obama instead.

micah: So we’ve already got two lessons from the Dean Scream: Cause and effect aren’t always so clear, and “momentum” as used by the political press is better interpreted as “that candidate gained in the polls” and not “that candidate WILL CONTINUE TO gain in the polls.”

So if the Scream didn’t sink Dean, what did?

natesilver: That’s not as clear. We know “outsider” candidates sometimes sink in the polls as the voting approaches. Donald Trump may be another example of this, given his performance in Iowa this week. But Dean, unlike Trump, had received quite a few endorsements from Democratic elected officials. You can read accounts from the Times and The Washington Post implying that the race was basically over after Al Gore endorsed him.

harry: Well, the thing that certainly helped to sink him in Iowa was that he got into a one-on-one fight with Dick Gephardt. That brought up their negatives, and John Kerry and John Edwards were able to come in and fill the void without taking much incoming fire. I think what also happened is that Dean was thought of as a weak general election candidate. That is, too liberal to win.

natesilver: There are a lot of parallels between the 2004 Democratic race and this year’s Republican one. Maybe Marco Rubio was helped in Iowa by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz fighting toward the end there.

harry: The capture of Saddam Hussein in mid-December 2003 didn’t help Dean, either. It boosted George W. Bush’s approval rating and made his decision to invade Iraq seem like a better decision. Obviously, views on that have shifted, but at the time, Dean, as the anti-war candidate, was hurt.

natesilver: Yeah, it’s pretty hard to remember now because the Iraq War would later become so unpopular, but back then it was thought of as a very risky position to oppose it. In January 2004, after the Saddam capture, approval of the Iraq War was hovering somewhere around 60 percent.

micah: So Dean disappoints in Iowa. His anti-war position becomes a little less viable. Is it still possible the Scream, or more specifically, the way the media handled the Scream, made it harder for Dean to recover from his Iowa loss?

natesilver: Dean lost almost 10 percentage points in his New Hampshire polls in the first several days after Iowa. Which is a larger-than-usual shift.

harry: It’s possible. It’s difficult to disentangle this stuff, but keep in mind that Wesley Clark also dropped in New Hampshire after the Iowa result. I don’t remember Clark screaming in Iowa. Clark and Dean both underperformed their final polling averages in Iowa. John Kerry, meanwhile, outperformed. He sucked up the oxygen in the room. I should also note, of course, that Kerry had always been in second or third place in New Hampshire. He was from right next door. Massachusetts senators and governors have a history of winning the New Hampshire primary, including Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. as a write-in in 1964.

natesilver: The interesting thing, though, is that his polls recovered a few points in the last day or two in New Hampshire and then he overperformed his polls on election night. He got 26 percent in New Hampshire when the polling average had him at 22 percent.

micah: And finished second, so he improved on his finish in Iowa.

natesilver: Keep in mind, as we’re watching whatever bounce there is in the polls for Cruz, Rubio and Trump after Iowa, that it can be a fluid thing. Sometimes it starts out small and gets big. Sometimes it starts big and gets small. Sometimes the bounce shows up in the polls, but less so in the actual vote. Sometimes just the opposite is true.

harry: Right, and that would suggest not some long-lasting gaffe, but rather the drop and then rise that we often see in a candidate’s polling after losing a state. Remember how Mitt Romney dropped in Florida in the immediate aftermath of losing South Carolina in 2012.

natesilver: Some of this is caused by press coverage. Right now, the “Rubio surging” narrative is one the press seems to want to tell, for example. In this case, there’s some justification for that at least, given his performance in Iowa and his newly minted endorsements. But sooner or later, “Rubio has stalled out” or “Rubio isn’t meeting expectations” or “Rubio doesn’t have this locked up” will make for a better story.

harry: Indeed, if we can take some lessons from Dean in 2004 and apply them to 2016: Losing a state the press thinks you’re going to win can be devastating to a campaign. Once a winner becomes a loser, it’s difficult to become a winner again. I’m, of course, thinking of Trump.

natesilver: The press loves a comeback story too, though. And it loves Trump. The biggest risk to a candidate like Trump or Dean, in some ways, is that the press writes them off as a novelty and gets bored with them.

harry: I’d argue one of the things that hurt Dean most was that those polls after New Hampshire showed him losing his lead. If Trump can maintain a large lead in New Hampshire, he may be able to weather the storm. I think the media dismissed Dean because he was losing, and the thought was let’s focus on the serious candidates now.

micah: How did the Dean campaign end?

harry: Well, it essentially ended with a string of losses. He didn’t win a single primary when he was still in the race. Dean made his last stand in Wisconsin, and he came in third there. After exiting the race, he won Vermont. So at least he won one primary.

micah: All right, to wrap: Give me your two biggest lessons from the Dean Scream and 2004 campaign generally that would help us make sense of the 2016 campaign.

natesilver: The lesson is simple. Be wary of the “narrative.” It’s wrong as often as it’s right, and it’s a lagging indicator as often as it’s a leading one.

harry: I think that it’s the power of the media to create a narrative and the importance of expectations. I mean, who would have thought that Howard Dean would take off like he did when he entered the race for president? If expectations had been kept low, his third-place finish in Iowa would have been seen as an amazing performance. Once he took the lead, though, third place was seen as disappointing. His campaign never recovered.

micah: And that last bit does sound eerily applicable.

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Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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