Does Trippi Know Something The Post Doesn’t?

Well, tomorrow will see the first binding Democratic primary in the nation, the Iowa caucus, and you can get some remarkably different views of what’s happening on the ground in that state depending on where you get your news.

Today’s Washington Post, for example, argues that John Kerry and John Edwards have now both eked out leads over Howard Dean among likely caucusgoers, leading to speculation that Dean has peaked too soon:

The shifting attitudes of voters help explain how the battle here has been transformed from a two-person race between Dean and Gephardt into a wild four-person contest that now includes the surging candidacies of Kerry and Edwards. A Des Moines Register poll published in Sunday’s editions showed Kerry at 26 percent, Edwards at 23 percent, Dean at 20 percent and Gephardt at 18 percent. Both Dean and Gephardt have lost support in the polls, but Vilsack said victory will be determined by organizational strength, and Gephardt and Dean are judged to have strong organizations…
Dean’s opposition to the Iraq war generated the first real wave of support for his candidacy here and continues to be his anchor heading toward Monday night. “His stand on the war got me involved with Dean right away,” said Victoria Siegel, an Ottumwa lawyer. “I’ve been housing a staffer since June 4th.”
But interviews with voters this week suggest that the power of Iraq as the galvanizing issue has faded in the face of concerns about finding someone who could defeat Bush, and this may explain why Kerry and Edwards have been gaining.

Go over to Daily Kos, though, and you can read U-Md. political science professor Tom Schaller, who’s been blogging from Iowa for the last few days, argue that analyses like the one above are missing the real story by focusing on numbers that don’t matter (poll results) instead of numbers that do (the “hard count” of committed Dems who will turn out to caucus for Dean):

And that’s why the question on everybody’s lips at Chequers bar last night was this: “What’s Dean’s hard count?” Steve McMahon, Joe Trippi’s partner in the Dean brain trust, looks like Sylvester grinning with Tweety Bird in his mouth. He won’t give the number, of course, but he seems very confident that his hard count will be a high enough numerator no matter what the denominator. And here’s why: The rumor last night is that, of Dean’s hard count “ones”, a startling 60 to 65 percent of them are self-identified, first time caucus-goers. McMahon could be spinning, but that doesn’t make sense – he surely does not want to raise expectations and then have to explain comparative failure on Tuesday. Second place, certainly third, and definitely fourth, would be comparative failure.
If it’s true about the share of committed “ones” that are first-timers, however, and if the total number of hard count Deanies (first time or rarely-participating or newly-affiliating Democrats, whatever) is that high, this is important because this means Dean is toting a disproportionate share of these beneath-the-radar voters…
I think the poll numbers of the past two weeks (especially last 4-5 days) set things up this way: If Dean wins by any margin at this point, suddenly he is again the candidate who continues to surprise his doubters.
But that only happens if the Tweety Bird (Dean’s true, undisclosed hard count) is really real, and not just a few feathers poking out of the corners of McMahon’s mouth. We’ll know in about 34 hours.

Well, it looks like the caucus is going to be interesting to watch no matter which interpretation you believe. But I have to say that I find Schaller’s interpretation more compelling than The Post’s. (I think I would say the same thing even if I wasn’t a Dean supporter, but consider this disclaimed if you can’t believe that.) Both stories are basically attempts at rationalization — they start from the new poll data that show Kerry and Edwards pulling ahead, and then try to explain why that happened (The Post by gathering anecdotes of Dean support slipping to Kerry and Edwards, Schaller by positing a reason why the polls may be misleading). But Schaller’s has the virtue of actually positing a reason for why the poll results are the way they are (the Dean and Gephardt people have been concentrating on mobilizing their grassroots, which has caused their poll numbers to dip as they have diverted resources from outreach, but which could pay off big come caucus time), while the story in The Post never seems to come together to such a conclusion.

Frankly, that’s a big deal. When I heard that Kerry had pulled ahead in the polls, I figured that could make sense — after all, Kerry was the presumptive front-runner for a long time, and he’d just brought in big-name organizer Michael Whouley to revivify his Iowa campaign. But Edwards? Huh? Any time the polls show someone like Edwards — who is personable and has some good ideas, but is clearly a few cycles away from being a real contender — surging like this, somebody had better be able to give a convincing explanation why, or I start to wonder about the polls.

Of course, all this will be moot in 24 hours or so, and thankfully New Hampshire is coming up soon enough so that there will be little time for Tuesday-morning recrimination from the Iowa losers. Stay tuned!