Could She Have Won?

Ronald Brownstein is West Coast editor of the National Journal and a contributing editor to this magazine.

COULD REP. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) have seriously competed for the Democratic presidential nomination? Judging by the national polls, she had as good a chance as almost anyone else in the race. While she pondered her options this summer, most surveys placed her in the middle of the Democratic pack. In some polls she trailed only Jesse Jackson and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

That was the good news for Schroeder. The bad news was that these national polls offered her very little real guidance. Mostly, they told her that hardly anybody knows anything about the Democratic candidates. Support for all of the candidates is minimal; only Jackson and Dukakis consistently draw allegiance from more than 10% of the voters. Any candidate with high name recognition or a natural base of support--as women provided Schroeder--could post competitive numbers against such an obscure field. "Hell, the chances are if you declared your candidacy tomorrow, you would be in the pack," says a pollster for one of the other Democratic contenders. But that wouldn't necessarily mean you could ever break out of the pack.

At this point, more telling than the polls is each candidate's progress toward building the basic infrastructure of a campaign: raising money, attracting a staff, organizing supporters in the states that hold the key early contests, defining an attractive message. And on those counts, Schroeder was facing much murkier prospects.

Money didn't look to be an insuperable problem. While she tested the waters, Schroeder demonstrated the potential to hold her own as a fund-raiser. Feminists quickly pledged several hundred thousand dollars to her campaign, and Schroeder seemed to be tapping other veins. During a trip to Los Angeles last summer, she not only stirred enthusiasm among women's groups but also performed well before a group of major donors convened by producer Norman Lear. "She was definitely flavor of the week that week," says one Los Angeles Democratic activist who attended the session.

By the end of September, when she withdrew from the race, Schroeder had raised almost $800,000--a respectable total, but less than half the minimum she considered necessary. Her real money problem was that she had started collecting it so late. Most of the Democratic candidates believe they need to raise $5 million to $6 million before the New Hampshire primary next February. To meet that mark, Schroeder would have had to raise about $1 million a month through the fall and early winter--which would be like running a marathon every day.

The late start, compounded by Schroeder's indecision about whether to run, created other snarls. The candidates careen through the primaries and caucuses not to attract popular votes but to collect delegates to the party convention in Atlanta next summer. As Gary Hart learned in several states during the 1984 race, winning popular votes doesn't advance your cause if your organization has not put a slate of delegates on the ballot. Qualifying delegates for the ballot is the epitome of political grunt work, an exhausting, complex job that few people like and fewer understand. It requires candidates to recruit thousands of delegates and collect hundreds of thousands of signatures nationwide. This year, because so many states have moved up their primary dates, several states' deadlines for qualifying delegates are already imminent. Because she was entering so late, Schroeder would have been just getting organized when many of those windows closed--in itself probably reason enough to sit out the race.

Her late start also would have handicapped Schroeder in the Iowa caucuses, which require early and relentless organizing. Schroeder's appearances generated interest in Iowa--particularly among women and peace activists--but because of her delay in entering, most observers felt that she could not focus that interest into significant support in this first major contest next February. "What it came down to for her," says Phil Roeder, communications director of the Iowa Democratic Party, "is that late September was late, period."

Some of Schroeder's advisers thought they could downplay Iowa and New Hampshire--states in which some candidates have been campaigning regularly for more than a year--and build a national effort aimed at later contests. But that strategy naively ignored the irresistible power of those early results to winnow the field. "Any campaign scenario that begins with the premise that we don't do so well in Iowa or New Hampshire might as well end at that point," says a top adviser to another Democratic hopeful.

That's true for any scenario built around winning the nomination. But as the first serious female candidate for the presidency, Schroeder, like Jackson in 1984, could have run a symbolic candidacy aimed almost entirely at a single constituency.

From the start, though, Schroeder tried hard to be seen as a candidate who happened to be a woman, not as the women's candidate. That was probably a losing battle; other tactical pressures forced her in that direction. Fairly or not, Schroeder had a bit of a reputation among insiders as a flake--a view derived in part from her habit of signing her name with a happy face inside the "P." And, as a little-known representative with no national presence, Schroeder had no other platform on which to stand in the race. "As a member of Congress you have to fight hard for any ground you gain in a presidential race," says Al From, executive director of the Democratic Leadership Council. "When you start with no ground, you have to move to the turf you can most easily occupy. For Schroeder, that would be running as a women's candidate." But once she was defined as the women's candidate, Schroeder faced the risk of being ignored by men and by women unmoved by the feminist agenda. It was, as From notes, a classic Catch-22.

Nor is it clear that Democratic women would have flocked to a woman candidate the way blacks embraced Jackson in 1984. Despite the expectations of feminist groups, the addition of Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro to the Democratic ticket in 1984 failed to attract women's votes. (President Reagan carried 58% of the female vote that year.) And in 1986 gubernatorial and Senate contests involving women, only in one race did women voters give the female candidate a significantly higher percentage of their vote than men, according to Karlyn Keens, editor of Public Opinion magazine.

On the other hand, according to veteran Democratic operative Ann Lewis, the energetic response to Schroeder's appearances suggested that "she was able to plug into enthusiastic" grass-roots support that could have sustained a symbolic candidacy right through the convention. To many feminists, the value of such a trailblazing candidacy seemed evident. Several told Schroeder that "a woman has to run and lose before a woman can run and win." But Schroeder wasn't eager to offer herself as a sacrifice on the altar of political progress. If she stayed in the presidential race past Super Tuesday, Schroeder risked forfeiting the House seat she has held since 1973. Even for a week of glory at the convention, that seemed to many around her a stiff price. As one close adviser put it, Schroeder wasn't running to make a point; "she was running to win." When she concluded she couldn't win, she decided not to run.

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