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Opinion: 2020 Democratic nomination process mirrors 2004 race

David Dulio

As we head into the Michigan Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday, the state of the race has shades of the 2004 Democratic contest.

During the entirety of 2003, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean lead the “invisible primary.” He was ahead in money, having raised $41 million. He was ahead in the polls with double the support of his next closest rival in the CBS News poll in January 2004. And, Dean was widely known to have the best campaign organization in the field with scores of volunteers from across the nation.

Dean, however, would not go on to win the nomination. Rather, former U.S. Senator John Kerry from Massachusetts did. Kerry’s ascendance to the nomination was quite miraculous. He had raised only 61% of funding that Dean had raised. He was in single digits in the January poll noted above. Kerry also had to take out a mortgage on his Boston mansion for $6 million so he could pay is campaign staff.

Some might be tempted to blame Dean’s defeat fully on the “Dean Scream” after the Iowa caucuses (Google it!), but that is only part of the reason for his loss. Rather, in late December 2003 when Kerry was at a low point with Democrats in Iowa and nationally, things turned politically.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean

Essentially, Democrats became pragmatic. Howard Dean was the darling of the left in 2003, but Democrats cared more about beating George W. Bush in November.

In a very short amount of time, Dean and Kerry swapped positions in the polls. In the span of about one month, polls in Iowa went from Dean ahead 26% – 9% to Kerry ahead 26% – 20%. That propelled Kerry to a win in Iowa where Dean finished third. Nationally, Kerry went from 9% in the CNN/USA Today poll one week before Iowa to 49% less than two weeks after.

Does this sound familiar? Relatively early in the primary process, a candidate from the Democratic “establishment” appears to be going nowhere at the expense of a rebel candidate from Vermont. However, in a short period of time, that rebel loses steam and the “establishment” candidate scores a huge political win and comes back from the dead politically speaking.

At the end of 2019, Bernie Sanders (and Elizabeth Warren) had raised roughly $80 million; the only candidates who had more campaign cash were Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer who both self-funded their campaigns.

Sanders, in both of his presidential runs, has had an excellent campaign organization in early primary states. After getting the most votes in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, Sanders had, according to the analysts at, the best chance of any candidate to head to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee this summer with the requisite delegates to win the nomination.

Joe Biden was nowhere after the Iowa caucuses; he had only a 14% chance of acquiring 1,191 delegates before the convention.

The 2020 Democratic presidential primary is a great example of how primaries can be event-driven processes. The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary reshuffled the field. So did the Democratic debate in Nevada when Michael Bloomberg first confronted his rivals face-to-face. His dismal performance — and more importantly the spin and media coverage after the debate — sunk his chances as a viable alternative to Sanders.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, right, speaks next to his wife Jill during a primary election night rally Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Democrats appear to have done what they did in 2004 — became pragmatic about their nominee. With no viable alternative to Sanders, Democrats seem to have turned to the “establishment” choice again. Biden’s large victory in South Carolina and his subsequent victories on Super Tuesday puts him in the driver’s seat in terms of delegates to the convention.

As Michigan heads to the polls, Democratic primary voters are down to two choices: the “establishment” candidate and the rebel from Vermont. Nationwide, Democrats seem to be coalescing behind Biden. They hope he can do what John Kerry could not — win the presidency in November.

David Dulio is director of Oakland University's Center for Civic Engagement, and professor of political science at Oakland University.