April 6, 2005

The Dean Activists: Their Profile and Prospects

II. On the Campaign Trail

Why Dean?

The war in Iraq was by far the most important issue that attracted Dean activists to the campaign. Two-thirds (66%) picked the war as one of the two most important issues in their decision to support Dean, far outpacing health care (at 34%). About a quarter (24%) cited fiscal responsibility as the most important issue in deciding to support Dean, while somewhat fewer mentioned the economy (19%).

Overall, gay rights was a fairly minor consideration for Dean activists (9% most important). But it was significant for young people ­ 21% of those under age 30 cited gay and lesbian rights as an important factor in their decision to support Dean, compared with just 4% of those 50 and older.

Aside from issues, the activists were drawn by Dean’s willingness to voice unpopular beliefs and his desire to change the party. Asked to choose among several options, 44% found his willingness to stand up for unpopular views most appealing. Many were also drawn by the possibility that he would change the direction of the Democratic Party (39%). Dean’s electability and his attentiveness to young people (8% each) were much less important in drawing activists to the campaign.

Dean activists offered similar sentiments in describing how they felt about their experiences in the campaign. More than eight-in-ten (83%) strongly agreed that Dean “gave me hope that we could change the country.” Large majorities also strongly agreed that Dean “spoke for me” (73%) and that Dean was the only candidate to stand up to Bush (69%).

Issues Mattered Most

Dean’s stance on issues was by far his most positive trait, according to his activist supporters. More than three-quarters (78%) cited Dean’s issue positions as what they most liked about him. Just 14% pointed to Dean’s leadership ability, and 7% cited his personality. Almost none of the Dean activists (1%) said the governor’s experience was what they liked most about him.

Indeed, a plurality of Dean activists (40%) viewed experience as his weakest attribute. About one-in-five (22%) said Dean’s personality was what they liked least about him, and about the same number (21%) gave no answer when asked about Dean’s negative traits.

Many Were Campaign First-Timers

While many Dean activists were seasoned veterans of earlier electoral battles, the Dean campaign did attract a sizable number of political newcomers. More than four-in-ten Dean activists (42%) ­ and 66% of those under 30 ­ said this was their first political campaign. Of the majority with some previous campaign experience, most (36% of the total) said they were more involved in the Dean campaign than in prior races, compared with 21% who were about as involved, or less involved than in the past.

For the most part, the Dean activists joined the campaign on their own initiative. About eight-in-ten (79%) said they sought out involvement in the campaign on their own, compared with 13% who were encouraged to join the effort. Those under age 30 were about as likely as older people to join the campaign on their own.

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of those who participated in the Dean campaign were encouraged by the experience to participate in the future, with 24% saying it had no effect and just 2% saying that they were discouraged from further political participation. Students and young people (those ages 15-22) were the most encouraged to participate in the future (83% and 87% respectively).

Social Side of the Dean Campaign

One of the most interesting aspects of the Dean campaign was the prevalence of social interaction, paradoxically fostered by what many people consider to be a medium of isolation: the internet. Most Dean activists reported meeting several new people through the campaign, and most who did said they still keep up with at least some of the people they met. Among those who came to know new people through the campaign, 82% said they met at least some of them in person. Majorities also say they would feel comfortable turning to other Dean activists for help with issues or problems in their own community, although only 15% said they would do so for help on a personal problem such as a medical emergency or home repair project.

The social side of the Dean campaign was not, however, the primary reason people said they involved. More than two-thirds of activists (68%) said their involvement with the campaign was mostly about politics and the issues, rather than about building relationships with people with similar values. Although nearly three-in-ten (29%) said they were motivated to participate by a mixture of both considerations, just 2% said it was mostly about forging relationships with people who shared their values.

Only 5% of all Dean activists dated or considered dating someone they met through the campaign; that figure rises to 21% of those in the youngest age group (15-22). A tiny percentage (0.26%) said they had married, were engaged to, or had become a life partner of someone met through the campaign.

Losing with Dean

Roughly three-quarters of the Dean activists (77%) say they strongly supported the governor during his short-lived campaign; another 20% supported Dean with some reservations.

When it became clear that their candidate would not win the Democratic nomination, most (85%) Dean activists say they were “disappointed” while 43% were “angry.” About a third (36%) were “surprised,” while a small number (4%) registered relief.

About one-in-five (19%) blamed Dean’s policy positions for his loss, and somewhat fewer (16%) attributed it to the strength of his competition in the primaries. A third (32%) blamed his performance during
campaign events.

Instead, activists focused much of the blame on forces largely external to the campaign: negative news coverage (90% cited this factor) and TV ads attacking Dean (67%). However a sizable majority (73%) agreed that an important reason for Dean’s loss was that, for whatever reason, he was not seen as electable in the November presidential face-off.

Turning to Kerry, with Reservations

After Dean’s campaign ended, his activist supporters overwhelmingly ­ if somewhat unenthusiastically ­ turned to John Kerry. Throughout the general election campaign, most Democratic voters consistently characterized their vote as being against Bush rather than for Kerry.

This also was the case among Dean activists ­ 69% said their vote was against Bush, compared with just 30% who said it was a vote for Kerry.

Dean activists gave the Kerry campaign much lower grades than did Democratic voters generally. In the September survey, half of Dean activists gave Kerry’s campaign a grade of A or B; just 13% gave the campaign the top grade of A. Democratic voters, by contrast, were more impressed with Kerry’s efforts. In mid-October, about three-quarters (74%) gave Kerry’s campaign an A or B; 31% of Democratic voters gave the campaign an A.

Dean activists were split over what they liked most about Kerry. While 39% said they most liked his stance on issues, significant numbers cited his experience (32%) and leadership (24%). For Kerry voters generally, the senator’s issue positions were by far his most appealing trait; 52% cited these, compared with just 16% who pointed to Kerry’s leadership and 13% who cited his experience. Dean activists cited Kerry’s personality as his biggest negative ­ 53% said that was what they liked least about him.

Views of the Campaign

Like the overwhelming majority of voters in both parties, Dean activists viewed the 2004 presidential campaign as important. Fully 97% of Dean activists called the campaign important, as did nearly identical percentages of Democratic and Republican voters nationwide (96% each).

On other aspects of the campaign ­ whether the campaign was too negative, dull, or too long ­ the views of Dean activists are fairly similar to those of Democratic and Republican voters.

But while large majorities of both Republican (79%) and Democratic voters (72%) found the campaign informative, many Dean activists disagreed. A plurality (48%) said the campaign was not informative ­ which probably reflects the low regard Dean activists had for press coverage of the campaign generally, and for coverage of Dean’s campaign in particular.

Why Kerry Lost

Dean activists generally pointed to the Bush campaign’s tactics as the main reason Kerry lost. Reacting to a list of possible factors, fully three-quarters of Dean activists selected “The Bush campaign scared voters with its focus on terrorism” as a very important factor in Kerry’s defeat.

A solid majority (56%) also selected “The Bush campaign misrepresented Kerry’s record and service in Vietnam” as a very important factor in his defeat. Far fewer Dean activists credited Bush with running a better campaign (33%) ­ or, alternatively, cited shortcomings by Kerry as major factors in his defeat.

Notably, most Dean activists did not view Kerry’s failure to pay attention to core Democratic groups as very important in his defeat. Just 10% pointed to Kerry’s positions as being too conservative, and just 2% mostly attributed Kerry’s defeat to the possibility that his positions were too liberal.

Election Reactions

Most Dean activists (78%) said they were depressed by the November election result. In a Pew national survey conducted shortly after the election (Nov. 5-8), 29% of Kerry voters ­ and 47% of liberal Kerry voters ­ said they were depressed by the election. However, the phrasing of that question offered a wider range of possible reactions to the election ­ “disappointed,” “worried” and “angry.”

Despite their sadness over the loss, a narrow majority of Dean activists (51%) said that Bush’s reelection will make them more politically active. Just 13% said Bush’s defeat would make them less politically active, while roughly a third (35%) said they would remain about as active as now

Second-Term Concerns

Dean activists have numerous concerns about what may unfold during Bush’s second term. Overwhelming numbers say they are very concerned about an overly aggressive foreign policy (89%); the blurring of separation between church and state (88%); worsening environmental problems (87%); the growing gap between rich and poor (86%); and restrictions on Americans’ civil liberties (83%).

Roughly three-quarters of Dean activists (74%) expressed a great deal of concern that Social Security and Medicare may be weakened in Bush’s second term. (The survey was completed before Bush began his campaign for private investment accounts in Social Security.) Dean activists are far less concerned that Bush will fail to sufficiently address threats from Iran and North Korea. Fewer than half (46%) were very concerned about this. Asked which concern was most important, 27% selected foreign policy and 23% chose separation of church/state.