Is Bernie Sanders Vulnerable to the Kind of Media Pile-On That Took Down Howard Dean?

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Bernie Sanders (and other pols) should go to school on the "Dean Scream" of 2004 to learn the power of negative media narratives. Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/2005 AFP

One of the fruits of ESPN’s acquisition of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight is the capacity to produce films, and so the wonky “data journalism” site has produced for our post-Iowa enjoyment a brief video look back at the “Dean Scream” — the iconic moment on the night of the Iowa caucuses when the soon-to-be-former Democratic presidential front-runner appeared to be losing it. 

With footage featuring Dean himself, well-known figures from his 2004 campaign like Joe Trippi and Tricia Enright, and even John Kerry staffers like Stephanie Cutter and Mary Beth Cahill, the film doesn’t break new ground, but it might be a revelation to those who weren’t around or paying close attention to politics 12 years ago. In short, “the Scream” (a litany of states Dean promised to go into and win, followed by a fist-pumping “Ahhhhh” or “Yeeehaahhh!” depending on your interpretation of inarticulate noises) was largely an illusion created by TV mics that picked up Dean’s voice but not the incredibly noisy crowd in the Val Air Ballroom in Des Moines. Rather than reflecting some unhinged aspect of the candidate’s personality, his speech was actually a direct reflection of what he was told to say by his most important Iowa backer, then-senator Tom Harkin. And far from killing Dean’s campaign, it simply placed an exclamation point on the disaster of a third-place Iowa finish for the man who had become a national front-runner not too many weeks earlier. Questionable campaign-resource allocations, momentarily positive news from Iraq, and some shrewd moves by Dean’s opponents had a lot more to do with the demise of his candidacy that the debatable effect of a single speech.

But as Silver & Co. note in a chat about the film, what “the Scream” actually did was reinforce a powerful media narrative that was already emerging about Dean as an “angry man” leading an emotional but not terribly responsible antiwar movement. And so it was probably one of the earliest videos to go viral, inspiring countless comedy routines, music videos, and even weather reports (“And then the storm’s going to hit South Dakota, and then Minnesota, and then Wisconsin! Yeeehaahhh!”). And eventually the narrative completely overwhelmed the facts, and people “remember” “the Scream” as having devastated a presidential candidacy. 

The lesson of “the Scream” seems to be that strong media narratives about a candidacy don’t need much fuel to burn brightly, and evocative moments that reinforce them can quickly become iconic and hard to shake. Silver guesses Donald Trump could be the victim of something similar if, like Dean, he continues to underperform expectations and confirm the original suspicion that he’s not a viable candidate. But I dunno: Trump’s already overcome so many supposedly fatal “moments” in debates and speeches that it’s hard to imagine him being felled by such a blunt object as a video. Looking back at Dean’s campaign, it’s hard to avoid the similarities between his kiddie crusade and Bernie Sanders’s; Bernie’s youth brigades in Iowa could be the youngest brothers and sisters (or nieces and nephews) of the orange-hat hordes that flooded the state for Dean in 2004. Lucky for Sanders, his young supporters don’t seem to have freaked out older Iowans quite the way Dean’s did. And on caucus night, Sanders more or less gave his stock speech rather than a pep talk (it helps distinguish him from Dean that he was not conceding defeat). 

But there’s no question elements of the media and political opponents alike would love to depict Bernie as an aging, strident ideologue serving as a pied piper to uninhibited and "idealistic" youth. And he already has a tendency to speak loudly (I’ve been advised by one acquaintance that drawing attention to Sanders’s volume as a speaker is an anti-Semitic dog whistle, but having grown up around some very loud southern Baptists, I just don’t buy it). A "Scream" moment is always a possibility. 

Howard Dean might warn his fellow Vermonter about his experience, but the irony is that Dean (and for that matter, the instigator of "the Scream," Tom Harkin) is supporting Clinton; in FiveThirtyEight’s film he returns to Iowa for the first time since "the Scream" to thump the tubs for Hillary. So maybe Dean and Harkin can advise their candidate that she, too, should beware of images and utterances that reinforce negative media narratives. Someone on her team should be assigned a full-time job watching for and heading off "gotcha" moments that suggest she’s dishonest. 

And media critics should go to school on “the Scream” and send up alarms when the herd mentality creates a similar phenomenon in the future. Howard Dean would have almost certainly lost anyway in 2004, but it would be nice to be sure of that beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Could Sanders Get the ‘Dean Scream’ Treatment?