As the polling numbers rolled in last night, the cable news networks had their hands full explaining to the viewers why Gov. Howard Dean’s campaign in Iowa had fizzled. Looking at entrance polling numbers showing Dean trailing Sen. John Kerry even among voters identifying themselves as anti-war, some analysts quickly concluded that the capture of Saddam Hussein had marked a turning point - for the worse - in Dean’s campaign. In his closing remarks on Fox News, for example Michael Barone of U.S. News & World Report opined that the capture “undermined the central premise of Howard Dean’s campaign.”

Barone, a former pollster, should know better. A closer look at the numbers indicates that, although this analysis sounds good, there is little hard evidence to back it up. News of Hussein’s capture broke on December 14, 2003. The results of a Zogby International Poll in Iowa taken two weeks earlier looked like this: Howard Dean 26 percent, Richard Gephardt 22 percent, John Kerry 9 percent, and John Edwards 5 percent. When Zogby released its next poll on January 10, Dean’s support had declined by one percentage point, but by January 12 it had risen to 28 percent. No one who looks at the numbers can say with confidence, as Barone did, that Saddam Hussein’s capture is what sunk Dean’s ship.

The Iowa results seem to have more to do with Kerry and Edwards gaining than with Dean losing. The Des Moines Register poll released late Saturday night showed Dean with 20 percent — not a far cry away from the 18 percent of the vote he eventually received. In the same Des Moines Register poll Kerry and Edwards scored 26 percent and 23 percent of the vote, respectively. But in the actual contest Kerry won 38 percent of the vote, while Edwards took home 32 percent.

As the Washington Post points out, “Dean led the field among Democrats who had settled on a candidate longer than a month ago. But this group consisted of only three in 10 caucus attendees.” Kerry beat “Dean by better than 2 to 1 among the 41 percent of voters who made their decision in the past week.”

The real story here is the rise of Kerry and Edwards, rather than the decline of Dean. Barone not only missed the facts, but he missed the story, too.

—Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.