To most campaign managers, politics is about CONTROL -- controlling a message, controlling your image. The Internet scares traditional campaign managers, because it seems so out of control, unpredictable. You can't control your supporters. You could send a message out to millions in seconds, then regret it, and have no way of taking it back.
Joe Trippi of Trippi, McMahon and Squier, Dean's campaign manager and a former Silicon Valley consultant, was willing to take risks. He saw the potential of the Internet in politics, embraced MEETUP, welcomed programmers and web enthusiasts into the campaign, and invested considerable resources in using the Internet as an organizing and fundraising tool for Dean. He was willing to give up some decision-making power and give it to volunteers self-organizing over the Internet. The Dean campaign didn't have much money to start with, it certainly didn't have the blessing of members of the Democratic National Committee, but it CAUGHT FIRE, and became a social phenomenon, gathering 600,000 supporters, thanks largely to the Internet.
Recall that when Dean, an obscure former governor of the nation's smallest state, announced for president in 2002, not many people noticed. The conflict with Iraq took center stage. Dean couldn't get airtime or ink.
As President Bush took the country to war in Iraq, grassroots Democrats seethed. They suspected he was waging war on false pretenses, without thinking things through, alienating American allies abroad. But Democrats in Congress didn't seem to be listening to their base constituencies. John Kerry, John Edwards, and Dick Gephardt all voted in the fall of 2002 to give the president authority to wage war in Iraq.
By February of 2003, anti-war sentiment was strong in the Democratic Party, but it had nowhere to go. Senator Bob Graham of Florida was the only prospective presidential candidate from the Senate to vote against giving the president authority to wage war in Iraq. But recovering from heart surgery in February/March, he was not in a position to seize the moment. Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio was an anti-war leftist, but not taken seriously by party activists or the media. Perhaps if Wesley Clark had announced his candidacy then, to protest the war, he could have seized the moment, but he was too hesitant, equivocal on the war, and too unseasoned politically to do so.
Howard Dean saw his opening and took it. He listened to grassroots Democrats' anger against the war, some of it from pacifist elements of the party, and articulated that anger publicly when no other candidate did. His supporters started to use the Internet to organize in innovative ways, particularly through Meetup.com.
Some pundits now compare the Dean campaign to a dot-com bomb, but Trippi disagrees. "The Dean campaign was a dot-com miracle, not a dot-com crash. The Dean campaign raised more money than any Democratic campaign in history," he told The New York Times Magazine.
As for the questions about how the Dean campaign spent the $40 million it raised, Trippi had this to say: "We did spend $100,000 on TV in Austin, TX. And what it was designed to do was make a statement and raise money off that statement. So we put up $100,000 in Austin, saying we're going to stand up to George Bush, and it generated about $1 million in internet contributions. Well, no one had ever done it that way before. So it seemed to the punditocracy that it was wasteful. Wasteful is doing it the way they do it. Hey, let's go spend $350,000 on a big ballroom with chicken dinners and fine china and entertainment, and if we raise $1 million at that dinner and we make $650,000, that's called smart politics."
The Dean campaign also embraced and sparked the phenomenon of blogging, in which millions of people post their opinions on the web and interact with one another. Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs and Virtual Community, observes that thanks largely to the Dean campaign, there are now "a million or 10 million bloggers out there. A bunch of them are nutcases. A lot of them are at the extreme ends. Many of them are totally uninformed. Some of them are going to be decent journalists. Some of them are going to be better than the pros. I think there's a Darwinian process when you have a large number of people doing it."
"If 10 million people are publishing their own opinions instead of sitting slack-jawed in front of the tube, that's got to be healthier for the public sphere. The mass media have disempowered people from the process and made them feel disempowered," Rheingold told Business Week.
He also saluted the Dean campaign for the way it used e-commerce to "raise large amounts of money very rapidly from small contributors. Raising $100 million by getting $1,000 contributions is the way it has been done. If you can raise $100 million by having a million people send in $100, suddenly the game changes. That's got to be a permanent and major change in the political equation."
So why didn't the Dean campaign succeed? Rheingold suggests "the pros and the volunteers didn't come together effectively on the Dean campaign." It will take some time to find out what works and what doesn't in the synergy between Internet and politics. Rheingold hopes future campaigns will experiment with such ideas as matching volunteers with constituencies the campaign is trying to reach.
"Sending a 23-year-old from California to talk to farmers in Iowa isn't going to be that effective. But if you can match your volunteers, who have self-organized at no cost, with the task that needs to be done, I think that could be a powerful combination....Let's say you've got to reach retired steelworkers at the Elks Hall or the African-American church ladies down at the Baptist church. Well, if you could match up appropriate volunteers from their neighborhoods and give them guidelines for how they could persuade those people, you now have a combination of knowing who specifically you need to reach to win this election and the self-organized volunteers in the vicinity."
The Dean campaign will be studied for some time to come. The essence of what Trippi did for Dean is described in these articles:
Perhaps Dean's campaign embraced the Internet because they saw it as his ONLY chance to distinguish himself from the rest of the pack. So it was low risk. Trippi recognized that opposition to the war and the promise of Internet-based community inspired passion and energy in people that made them willing to work their tails off, for "the cause" and "the movement" as much as for Howard Dean.
But there remains in Trippi and in Dean supporters a commitment to electronic populism, electronic democracy, and a more left-leaning, "grass-roots version" of the Democratic Leadership Council, the quasi-think tank that's aligned with party centrists and has tried to increase the influence of business in the Democratic Party.
He has created a web site and blog, Change for America to start the process of building a new organization, to keep the momentum of Dean's innovations going. It will be interesting to watch. Dean may have lost, but the risks his campaign took may result in long-lasting change in this country. Eventually, Trippi says, "People will look back on the Dean campaign and say, 'What a primitive thing'."