The curse of the orange hats

Published January 20, 2004 2:55PM (EST)

For the next 48 hours or so, while the journalistic ground troops are on their way from Iowa to New Hampshire, the BSDs of the pundit class will be vivisecting the Howard Dean campaign to determine what went wrong Monday night. So far, everybody's overlooked the blip of trouble that began to flash on Iowa radar about a week ago: the bright orange watch caps worn by Dean's volunteers.

An estimated 3,500 or more earnest Dean ground troops were in the corn-belt state last week, during the cold heart of winter, for a precinct-by-precinct effort to turn on and turn out Dean voters. They were known as "The Perfect Storm," or, among journalists on the trail, as "the orange hats." Bright with the light of common faith, that volunteer corps was supposed to provide Dean with the margin of his success. No other campaign could match those numbers or that degree of commitment, the pundits said.

But it didn't work.

Maybe it's unfair to blame the hats, but put yourself in the boots of an average Iowa Democrat a few days before the caucus. The campaign is so intense that it has become a form of political harassment. Your phone rings every 10 minutes with an automated robo-call on behalf of one candidate or another. Your mailbox is jammed with political junk mail. Then comes a knock on your door and there you find a couple of committed campaigners from Park Slope or Noe Valley or Wicker Park telling you that Howard Dean is your man. And they're wearing these really loud orange caps.

How would you react if a bunch of Iowans invaded your neighborhood like that? Now you're beginning to understand what might've happened to Dean on Monday.

Sure, many factors are to blame for Dean's bad night, but the orange hats are more than a footnote in the history of haberdashery. Though issues are important in a political race, a candidate is just as likely to rise and fall on the semaphore of style and symbols that define a campaign.

In the aftermath, I can't help but think the Dean-ites came off as a little precious, maybe even a little bit cultish, in those caps. What was the point? Were they trying to impress Iowans with the size of their army? Were they a subtle, ironic comment on the presumed nerdiness of the locals? Were they an expression of uncritical devotion to the higher political cause? Inevitably, the choice of headwear set the volunteers apart, and not in a good way. It made them stand out, much as saffron robes make a Hare Krishna devotee stand out at an airport. And "The Perfect Storm" imagery? Someone should have told Dean: In the Midwest, when the weather turns violent, sensible people get away from windows and doors and head for the basement to wait it out.

By Edward W. Lempinen

Edward W. Lempinen is a senior news editor at Salon.

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