When Connecticut’s favorite son withdrew from the presidential race following a dismal showing in Iowa, his concession speech echoed the rest of his campaign: long on issues and short on sound bites.
While the leading Democratic contenders have succeeded in casting their candidacies in simple terms — “experience” here, “change” there — Senator Christopher Dodd has always focused on policy, highlighting his past legislative achievements or the current need, he says, to protect the Constitution. But even when he spoke to issues Iowa Democrats prioritized in media polls, he failed to garner their support amid a crowded field.
Even Dodd’s base of support in Connecticut looked weak in the last couple months, and residents of his home state may be glad the long-shot campaign is over, according to the last Quinnipiac Poll, which was released last November.
Dodd campaign co-chair and Connecticut Democratic congresswoman Rosa DeLauro said in an e-mail that Dodd was satisfied and “more energized than ever” to return with the “hopes and dreams he heard on the campaign” to the Senate — where the poll suggests some voters from his home state prefer him.
While 76 percent of Connecticut Democrats thought Dodd was doing a good job as Senator, they were evenly split on whether he would make a good president. And when told that Dodd had never garnered more than 1 percent in national polls, 70 percent of residents, including 68 percent of Democrats, said they thought it was time for him to drop out.
As of November, Dodd trailed Senator Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, the leader at the time in Connecticut, by a margin of 45 percent to 5 percent, according to the Quinnipiac poll.
In Iowa, unlike in Connecticut, Dodd had the chance to explain his rationale for his candidacy in great detail to Iowa residents who often have the opportunity to meet most of the candidates. But even so, the campaign encountered difficulties.
“The most difficult thing [was] that people were so aware of what Senator Dodd had done, some favorably disposed … but they wouldn’t vote for him because they said he didn’t have a chance,” said Eileen Daily, a Conn. state senator who campaigned for Dodd in Iowa.
Daily blamed poor press coverage for damaging Dodd’s perceived electability. She said that even as most of the candidates were given at least some coverage on radio or television shows, “we never saw anything about Senator Dodd.”
As a result she said, knowledgeable voters were sympathetic to Dodd’s positions, but unwilling to commit to a candidate they considered — perhaps because of the lack of press — unable to win.
So while Dodd may have gotten across his policy positions to Iowa voters, his poor performance there shows an inability to tap into the arguably capricious but — unfortunately for those unpopular with the press — necessary world of 24-hour national media. A quick search through archives of national newspapers reveals only a few, and often brief and oblique, references to Dodd.
“It’s a historic election,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, a Democratic strategist in Connecticut, who pointed out that every election only has one winner, and said he did not think Dodd had done anything particularly wrong, strategy-wise.
“A woman, an African-American, a Latino — all three groups which are typically considered minority groups — all represented at the top of pack,” he said, as he listed reasons beyond Dodd’s control for why the media often focused elsewhere. “That’s historic, and that explains a lot of what happened. It explains the attention, … [it] explains where campaign funds and media coverage go.”
But it is still impossible to say for certain whether the dearth of media coverage was the cause or the result of a campaign that picked up little steam. One example, as anyone who has watched the televised primary debates knows, is that Sen. Barack Obama, Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards inevitably ended up with more speaking time, much to the chagrin of supporters for all the other candidates.
From the beginning, Dodd walked a fine line, at once cognizant of the difficulties in having so little name recognition beyond New England, but always professedly optimistic about the chances to build national support. After declaring himself a “dark horse” to Don Imus and his national audience on the “Imus in the Morning” radio talk show on Jan. 7, 2007, he focused solely on Iowa, going so far as to moved his wife and kids with him to Iowa in October for the duration of the campaign — hoping, ultimately to no avail, that his lack of national coverage would matter less in a state known for its door-to-door campaigning.
In August, he earned an important endorsement from the International Association of Fire Fighters — the same union that endorsed 2004 Democratic-nominee Senator John Kerry. But after a flurry of news coverage and media speculation about whether the endorsement could bring him, like Kerry, success in Iowa, his short-lived media presence quickly dissipated.
Occhiogrosso said the lack of media coverage spoke to a “disturbing trend” in political campaigns that he said seems to be worsening with every election cycle. He said that initially the press decides who the contenders are based on funding and polling numbers, which feeds a vicious cycle.
Still, on the Republican side, Governor Mike Huckabee broke out of that same cycle. But Huckabee had the advantage of a niche of evangelical Republicans in Iowa to whom he could specifically appeal, more so than the other Republican contenders.
Meanwhile, despite his requisite claims to being a serious contender, Dodd often seemed content to fight the good fight, bringing up issues that the leading candidates did not mention. As Dodd himself said in his remarks after the Iowa caucuses, his campaign had “kept pace in the race of ideas” even if it had lost the race for votes.
During the campaign, he consistently spoke of repairing America’s image abroad and repairing the Constitution at home. While calling for an end to the Iraq war, he promoted a new “American patriotism” that would include mandatory national service in high school and an increase in the number of Peace Corps volunteers.
Meanwhile, the Democratic debate that played out in the media was mostly a war of rhetoric, fighting over whether “change” — what it meant, who could deliver — was more or less important than experience. Although comparisons of health care policies got some air time, those moments were often lost beneath the mountain of coverage of generalities and, especially, polling numbers.
Colleen Flanagan, Dodd’s national press secretary, wrote in an e-mail that “while the outcome was not what we had hoped for, Sen. Dodd succeeded in bringing … critical issues into the debate between candidates.”
While Occhiogrosso and Dodd campaigners interviewed said Dodd’s candidacy contributed substantially to the policy debate, Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist who has worked on four presidential campaigns, most recently John McCain’s in 2000 as his national communications director, said in an e-mail that he was doubtful Dodd had gained enough support to have much influence even on the issues.
Yale political science professor Justin Fox told the News last spring that he thought it likely Dodd would not even make it to the Connecticut primaries on Feb. 5. This Monday, he said that while Dodd clearly ran to win, his own impression was that he failed to distinguish himself as anything other than simply an elder statesman.
But as Occhiogrosso noted, success in the Senate has historically been a poor indicator of success in a White House bid. The last senator to win the presidency was John F. Kennedy, in 1960. And although all three leading Democrats are current or former senators, none of them has placed as much emphasis on their specific legislative achievements as Dodd, who often returned to the successful passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave following a child’s birth or a family member’s medical emergency and which took Dodd nearly 20 years to achieve.
More than anything, Dodd simply did not capture attention, positive or negative. Even Richardson and Biden, who Dodd shared what the media dubbed “the second-tier,” caused more media stir. Richardson particularly gained internet and later mainstream media attention for his campaign ads depicting him as being overly qualified in a job interview for president — notably, perhaps as the attention was due to the ads, not the experience itself.
Schnur explained that the three candidates had probably “cannibalized” each other’s votes. But the Iowa results reflect the fact that Dodd gained even less traction than his so-called peers: Richardson with 53 delegate votes, Biden with 23 and Dodd with only 1.
Daily, who attended a caucus on Jan. 3, offered one explanation.
She said Dodd’s campaign, faced with skepticism over electability, had encouraged people to consider him as a second-choice, which she said they often readily did. In Iowa, after an initial expression of presence, caucus participants may switch candidates, including to those with fewer than 15 percent support — the cut-off margin for receiving any delegates.
But she said the massive turnout made it difficult for supporters to gage which candidates might become viable with a little additional support.
Back in Connecticut, where it all began, New Haven Board of Alderman President Carl Goldfield offered his opinion, a stark example of the public perception that haunted Dodd throughout the campaign.
“His only real support was in Connecticut, and [also] from firefighters and bankers,” Goldfield said. “He was never considered to be a serious contender … but I guess a Cinderella story was possible.”