The Case Against Tom Vilsack
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Echoes of Tom Harkin?
In theory, a politician who calls Iowa home is in the driver's seat when it comes to a presidential candidacy. The Iowa caucuses are almost certain to be the first vote of the 2008 presidential campaign, and what better way for Vilsack to launch himself on the national stage than with a big win in his own back yard?
Theory and practice often differ, however. In Vilsack's case, hailing from Iowa may be more of a burden than a benefit. Having served as the state's governor for the past eight years, Vilsack enters the Iowa caucus process with sky-high expectations.
Although Vilsack will seek to downplay historical comparisons, any political junkie knows that the last time an Iowa politician ran for president was in 1992 when Sen. Tom Harkin (D) was a candidate. Harkin's presence in the field led the other candidates to largely bypass Iowa -- ceding the race to him. On caucus night, Harkin won 76 percent of the vote while "uncommitted" votes placed second with 12 percent. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton -- the eventual nominee -- won just 3 percent.
There is almost zero chance that Vilsack will come close to matching Harkin's 1992 caucus support. None of the major candidates in the race appear willing to concede Iowa to Vilsack -- a sound decision given that Des Moines Register survey of likely Democratic caucus goers showed Vilsack trailing three higher-profile Democrats in a hypothetical caucus match-up -- former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
If that poll is to be believed, Iowa represents a no-win situation for Vilsack. If he manages to wind up on top in the caucuses, most neutral observers will take it as a matter of course -- two term governor wins his home state, no surprise there. In that event, the focus of the national media coming out of Iowa will likely be on who comes in second (or even third), not on Vilsack. He stands to gain no bump from an Iowa caucus win.
An Iowa loss -- especially a third- or fourth-place showing -- effectively ends Vilsack's candidacy. A two-term governor who can't even win his home state? It's hard to see how Vilsack continues on without winning or coming in a close second in Iowa, as donors and activists like to be associated with a momentum candidate, which Vilsack almost certainly would not be in this scenario.
The other major argument against Vilsack is money. As a governor, Vilsack has never had to raise money under the considerably more stringent federal limits, which cap individual contributions to a to $2,000 per election. Part of Vilsack's decision to enter the race so early was his need to form a federal fundraising committee and begin to answer his doubters on the financial front.
Vilsack's campaign is already bragging that they will show $1 million raised in his presidential account by year's end. But he will need to show an ability to raise tens of millions more if he hopes to be competitive with the likes of Clinton, Edwards, and Kerry, not to mention Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.).
Clinton remains the financial titan in the race, having raised $50 million for her non-competitive 2006 Senate campaign, but candidates like Bayh and Kerry each have more than $10 million in a campaign account that could be immediately transferred to a presidential bid.
While Vilsack is the current chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a position that provides him a national fundraising network, it remains to be seen where he can go to raise that sort of cash. For people like Clinton and Kerry, their home states are fundraising treasure troves that can be tapped again and again for campaign cash. In Edwards's case, he has a strong following among trial lawyers -- an affluent group whose members donated heavily to him during his unsuccessful 2004 race. Vilsack has no apparent fundraising "in" -- either geographically or with a particular constituency group. Moderate/centrist donors are sure to give to him, but they are also likely to face pressure to donate to Clinton and Bayh among others.
Without a significant warchest, Vilsack will struggle to boost his name identification in any early state outside of Iowa. Without name identification he stands little chance of dethroning the better-known and better-financed candidates expected to be in the field.
Can Vilsack overcome these challenges? Of course. Will he? The odds are very much against him.
Vilsack was mentioned as a vice presidential candidate in 2004, and given Iowa's importance to the Democrats' electoral-vote calculus, we can expect his name to come up in those discussions again in 2008 if he comes up short in his own bid for the top spot on the ticket.
More on Vilsack
* The Fix's case for a Vilsack 2008 run.
* The Fix's interview with Vilsack.
More 2008 Developments
* Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh (D) considers presidential run.
* Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback (R) confirms formation of presidential exploratory committee.
December 4, 2006; 11:50 AM ET
Categories: Eye on 2008
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