Dean’s volunteers are ordinary

Howard Dean lost the Iowa caucus, by any rational measure. Once considered the front-runner in a state extremely important to Democratic presidential contenders, Dean fell to third place by a considerable amount in the caucuses.

Dean wants to appear unfazed by this; he wants to reassure his enormous campaign force that he is still the best choice for Democrats and his campaign will be victorious in the end. After all, if his legion of volunteers (3,500 swept into Iowa last weekend) see Dean as losing, they might shift their efforts elsewhere. And I should know – I worked in Iowa as one of Dean’s volunteers.

The media has not been kind to Dean, and it is necessary to correct a few assumptions about Dean and his supporters that are patently false.

Broadly, Dean is painted as simply an angry man using emotive appeals to attract leftists desperate to oust President George W. Bush from office. Hidden in this assumption is the false idea that Dean’s proposals are extremely leftist in nature. The final misperception promoted by the media is that Dean’s supporters are uncritical leftists themselves – people who all live in Berkeley, Calif., and Madison, Wis.

The media has us convinced Dean is too far to the left of the American people. However, Dean has always made a point to emphasize that he strongly supported intervention in Kosovo, Afghanistan and also Iraq, but that he opposed the way the Bush administration went about the latter invasion. He also talks incessantly about balancing the budget, providing Americans with universal health care and committing to international environmental agreements. He also agreed with the ratification of NAFTA and the WTO, and, despite his union endorsements, he generally advocates free trade policies. Last time I checked, these were pretty center-left and centrist ideas, not socialist ones. And when I check polls of the American people, these are all mainstream policies.

But some of the greatest ire is reserved for Dean’s volunteers and supporters. Almost all of these volunteers have attended a Dean house party, contributed to the campaign, or actually traveled to Iowa or New Hampshire to help Dean’s campaign. If there was a cultic ambience to Dean’s people in Iowa, it was attributable not only to the donning of orange hats by Dean volunteers but also to the optimistic, energetic approach they took to the campaign.

Despite being almost completely composed of white Americans, Dean’s supporters have almost no element of background in common. I met men and women in almost perfectly proportionate numbers. I saw children, 8 years old, dragged to Iowa by passionate parents; 70-year-old people; and just about every age between. People came in entire families, on their own, or in groups of friends to canvass Iowa. They came from the Midwest in flocks but also drove and flew in from Florida, Texas, New York, Washington state and California.

What was the most common demographic I saw among Dean’s followers in Iowa? White, urban-dwelling, bachelor’s degree or higher education level and between the ages of 25 and 40. What is especially humorous about this is that I could just as easily be describing Bush’s supporters.

So, what is wrong with Dean’s followers? Described as “latte-sipping,” “Volvo-driving” and “sushi-eating” by a conservative commercial aired in Iowa a week ago, these labels mostly cause Dean supporters to laugh. They laugh because these things imply they are wealthy people removed from the experiences of ordinary Americans.

The irony is most of Dean’s volunteers are firmly middle-class. I never saw a Volvo-driving volunteer in Iowa, let alone anything fancier than a battered Ford truck or Honda Civic. Most volunteers could afford nothing better than the lodgings the campaign offered: a leaky cabin outside of Ames, or the crowded four-to-a-room Super 8 Motel in Dubuque, for example. And Dean’s campaign is the only viable one with an average contribution under $100. Contrast this with the 73 percent of Bush’s donors who have contributed $2,000 – the legal limit for individual contributions.

Dean’s volunteers are far from perfect, but their efforts made a difference in Iowa, even if this effect was negated by Dean’s media image and his own mistakes. Above all, they are extremely ordinary citizens who are taking their concern for this country’s future to the streets. It remains to be seen if their sacrifices will turn the tide in the primaries and caucuses ahead.

Mitch Mosvick is a guest columnist. He welcomes comments at [email protected]