CJR's Campaign Desk highlights a little reported fact in all the Iowa reporting:
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.
So Dean appears to be the candidate of early-adopters. His biggest failure was in making the sale to those who waited until the last minute to make up their mind. Dean may have taken it for granted that his early successes in 2003 would naturally translate into a comparable pickup of support in 2004 (one NPR commentator made an apt comment on Monday night: Dean may have been the perfect Democratic candidate for 2003). Dean did not realize that picking up the late-comers may just require an entirely different dynamic from what works to win over the early support.
I'm coming to the conclusion that Dean's campaign started having troubles from the minute he received Al Gore's endorsement. The endorsement was a good thing, but presenting it as if Dean's eventual nomination was a foregone conclusion apparently struck a lot of voters as presumptuous. It cemented some of the ill-will that was growing within Democratic rank-n-file as well as within the press. Dean did not correct for this misstep and, in fact, did not appear to notice it.
I noticed it myself at the time, but didn't speak up about it in the hope that it would just go away. Perhaps that was my mistake.
I'm not ready to give a eulogy for Dean's campaign yet. He's been written off before and come back to surprise people. But you can only pull the Lazarus routine so many times.