That was the night I first heard from Joe Trippi, campaign manager of an obscure Vermont governor’s dark-horse campaign for the presidency. It turned out Trippi was one of my readers, and to my surprise, he was quick to offer sympathy and understanding. As our correspondence continued, my initial, tentative support gave way to full-blown enthusiasm. Though I was a little uncomfortable with Dean’s lack of national security experience–which even then looked to be a key credential for the 2004 race–Trippi slowly drew me in. Each time I opened my email or checked my messages and found a Dean campaign official inside, my interest intensified. Soon I was selling Howard Dean online, then organizing for him around my Southern California hometown. Finally, I accepted Trippi’s invitation to spend the summer in Vermont, working for the campaign.
I had barely noticed, but Trippi had turned me from a nominal supporter of his candidate into a die-hard Deaniac. As any political pro will tell you, this is an important evolution; the former may mark the ballot, but the latter converts his friends, opens his wallet and stuffs the envelopes. And it was a conversion that Dean’s campaign, through its emphasis on participation and innovative use of the Internet to make that participation possible, worked on tens of thousands of people more or less like me. By the end of the year, these ground troops–volunteers, bloggers, MoveOn.org members, and Meetup.com enthusiasts–would provide enough energy and cash to turn Dean from a dark horse into the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination.
That was before the primaries actually got under way, of course. Dean didn’t become the Democratic nominee, and he shuttered his bid a month after the Iowa caucuses not having won a single state. Trippi’s new book, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, is thus less a memoir of that turbulent period than an attempt to retrieve the lessons of Dean’s campaign from the dustbin of failed primary efforts. He wants us to remember Dean not as the hothead whose unscripted yelp from an Iowa ballroom cost him the election, or as the liberal firebrand whose challenge gave his party a spine transplant, but as a man who, even in losing, changed the nature of politics. “It was,” he writes, “the opening salvo in a revolution, the sound of hundreds of thousands of Americans turning off their televisions and embracing the only form of technology that has allowed them to be involved again, to gain control of a process that alienated them decades ago.”
Even for Democrats who didn’t support Dean, Trippi’s “revolution” continues to be a reason to look back on the candidacy with some fondness. Finally, they say, someone has figured out a model for how the party can be politically successful in the post-McCain-Feingold age. I shared a lot of that enthusiasm, and still do. But looking back at the campaign through Trippi’s eyes, it’s become clearer and clearer to me that Dean’s model, like any new technology, can be as dangerous as it is useful. Unless properly harnessed, the new politics of the Internet may do to future candidates what it did to Dean: Make them lose.
Trippi, of course, didn’t create Dean’s devoted army; central to the story of the Dean campaign was the manner in which the candidate’s army of volunteers, bloggers, and donors created itself. But more than any other person, Trippi was the movement’s disheveled, short-tempered prophet, who saw early on that something new was happening in politics, and that this something could be Dean’s ticket to the front of the pack. Indeed, as the 2004 cycle began, Trippi was probably the only campaign manager in America capable of marrying expertise in national campaigning with immersion in the high-tech world. Though a dyed-in-the-wool politico–Dean’s was his seventh White House campaign–Trippi was also a certified geek. He never finished his aerospace engineering degree at San Jose State, but throughout his political career Trippi retained his addiction to caffeine, ahead-of-their-time gadgets (think the Newton), and something called the Internet, back when it was still an obscure, pre-Web network used almost exclusively by hackers and research scientists. Trippi had even spent time in Silicon Valley, working there during the late 1990s as a corporate consultant and start-up investor at the height of the tech boom. By then, Trippi had gone somewhat sour on politics and the listlessness and rightward drift of his party, and he had vowed never to work on another “presidential.”
But when Dean came calling in 2003, it didn’t take long for Trippi to change his mind. “He talked from the heart about things I believed,” Trippi recalls in his book. “He said that America was drifting towards war in Iraq for the wrong reasons. That the country was too beholden to special interests. That the greatest nation in the history of the world ought to provide health care for its people…I fell in love.” A lot of other people did, too, especially after Dean’s first big moment: His barnstorming speech at a Democratic National Committee meeting that winter. There, the candidate demanded to know why most of his party (and most of the presidential field) had supported the “president’s unilateral attack on Iraq,” and acquiesced on much of his policy agenda, from tax cuts to health care. Lifting a line from the late senator Paul Wellstone, he told a throng of committee members, “I’m Howard Dean and I’m here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
For much of the party establishment, this line marked Dean as a danger, someone who didn’t understand how to navigate the post-9/11 security environment and was abandoning the lessons of Clintonism. But many grassroots voters, most of them liberals, had been craving exactly this kind of toughness and outspokenness for years. The problem was that the Dean campaign didn’t amount to much– “seven people sitting around Vermont with a bunch of shoeboxes,” Trippi writes, not much money, and a virtually unknown candidate. Without much other choice, Trippi looked to the Internet as a way to decentralize the campaign, to hand the work of organizing and fundraising to the grassroots. Tellingly, the rest of the campaign resisted; it took Trippi days to convince his colleagues that putting a link to Meetup.com–a service that, as the name suggests, allows people with similar interests to find each other and organize events–on Dean’s Web site wouldn’t violate campaign finance law.
Once the ball got rolling, however, things changed rapidly. It turned out that Dean’s hard-hitting speeches and appearances were turning heads, but mostly outside the Democratic Party’s organized interest groups and party structures. Provided with the tools to collaborate, online and off, this virtual grassroots came to life in the real world. Through the Dean campaign’s Web site, pro-Dean blogs, and Meetup.com, these individuals began talking to each other. They critiqued anti-Dean articles in the press. They suggested slogans. Some appointed themselves as de facto field directors, and hosted fundraisers or rallies with little input from campaign headquarters. They also surrendered their emails to the Dean campaign, letting the campaign talk back to its grassroots, begging them for donations and suggesting (but never requiring) the best outlets for their energies. Trippi was a constant presence. He spent hours on his computer exchanging emails with obscure bloggers and posting replies to unsuspecting commenters. His trademark voice–staccato and punctuated only by dashes–reflected the informality of his campaign and its supporters, most of them young, many of them newcomers to politics. His faith in politics, too, was restored. “You could gather around the computer screen and see the campaign beginning to come to life,” Trippi writes, “on web sites and in blogs, in e-mails that ricocheted around the country, each hit and blog and message representing a real person learning about Howard Dean and stepping up to do his or her part.”
The results shocked everyone, including Trippi. Dean rocketed ahead of the pack in fundraising, shattering first other people’s records, then his own. (He would eventually raise $15 million in a single quarter, much of it online–a primary record.) His events attracted thousands of “Deaniacs” with minimal advance work by campaign staffers; a few emails were enough. His poll numbers shot up, driven by tens of thousands of activists proselytizing their friends and, eventually, attention from the media, drawn like hounds to the scent of an insurgent candidacy unfolding. By the end of 2003, even the Democratic establishment was beginning to come around. The two most politically powerful labor unions–the Service Employees International and the American Federation of County, State, and Municipal Employees–delivered a joint endorsement, followed by nods from Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Dean looked invincible.
As delivered in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, the story of Dean’s ascent is a good yarn, and well told, too, in a prose style that’s one part gonzo journalism, one part Up With People. But it’s when Trippi tries to explain how Dean fell, the story goes awry. Trippi argues that it was old-fashioned dirty politics–old speeches ripped out of context, a press whose benign tolerance of the entertaining insurgent had given way to hyper-intense scrutiny of the little-known frontrunner, and a flurry of negative ads unleashed by Dean’s rivals for the nomination–that felled his unconventional campaign. (The media’s postmortems traced a similar arc, absolving the innovative “netroots” of any blame for Dean’s failure.) This allows Trippi to spend the rest of his book touting the technological revolution in politics and advising candidates to adapt to it, or lose. “An amazing thing happened in the presidential contest of 2004,” he claims. “For the first time in my life, maybe the first time in history, a candidate lost but his campaign won.”
This explanation falls short. As a candidate, Dean had problems from the get-go. He had no national security bona fides in a race that put a premium on them, and hailed from the liberal Northeast at a time when Southern roots seemed like a better fit for Democratic candidates. As Vermont’s governor, Dean supported balanced budgets, gun rights, the death penalty, the first Gulf War, and welfare reform, and his record was at odds with his newfound constituency, which consisted chiefly of unreconstructed liberals drawn by his opposition to the second Gulf War. If the Dean campaign had been about Dean, that might have been a problem. But the campaign wasn’t about the candidate; that is, it wasn’t focused on Dean’s policies or vision of the future, which were neither distinctive nor groundbreaking nor liberal. The campaign was about the campaign.
Trippi himself sees that quality as “the difference between the Dean for America campaign and every other presidential of the past twenty years. Every other campaign has started by saying–‘Look at me. Aren’t I amazing?’ But every time Howard Dean got up to speak, every time his campaign staff got on the web to blog, the message was ‘Look at you. Aren’t you amazing?'” There’s clearly something to admire in this sentiment. And it’s hard not to view the engagement and involvement Dean inspired as an unalloyed good. But the result was that Dean–especially late in the game–became defined by his supporters, by their views and actions rather than his own.
Trippi, for obvious reasons, saw this as the campaign’s great strength, and indeed the main innovation worth adopting by other candidates, corporations, and the like: “What if Ford did this: Announce that it’s designing a new Mustang and that it wants all those loyal drivers who ever owned a Mustang to help decide what it looks like…maybe they can even vote on a design element, whether it has a fastback or not. Now, what happens when they roll that Mustang out on the showroom floor? You will have created a community that has something invested in this car and, best of all it will actually be a car the community wants.”
But this only begs the question: Just how many Mustang enthusiasts are out there? How many would actually participate in an exercise like this? And once that die-hard group has been assembled, are they going to design a car that anyone else wants to drive? If they don’t, it will be a failure, and it won’t matter how enthusiastic the die-hards are.
Campaigns generally use polling to sidestep this problem. Rather than sticking a finger in the air and hoping you accurately read the winds, you hire a good polling firm, have them draw up the right questions, and in return learn what the voters want and how you’re giving it to them. At that point, a candidate can attempt to either move towards the electorate or move the electorate towards them. But if you’re concentrating too much on your core audience, they become your only focus group. Saying, as Dean did in one foreign policy speech, that “the capture of Saddam has not made America safer,” may result in an immediate flood of donations and positive reinforcement from your base. But it’s going to mystify and thus alienate everyone else.
That’s what happened to the Dean campaign. The same new technologies that enabled Trippi to decentralize it also shifted its internal balance of power, ceding Dean’s identity and message in no small part to the die-hard activists who had made him the frontrunner. But die-hards don’t shrug their shoulders when their candidate zags; they yell and protest and try to drag him back. Trippi himself admits that Kate O’Connor and Dean eventually wanted to fire him because “[I]n their eyes, Dean had been swept up in the momentum of his own populist movement…was unable to leave the insurgent firebrand behind and reposition himself as just another moderate Democrat”–an inability which proved fatal. And in a campaign where even the bulk of Democratic primary voters were focused on “electability,” the Deaniacs could be an unappealing bunch. When the conservative group Club for Growth ran an ad featuring a Midwestern couple telling Dean to take his “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving freak show back to Vermont” they weren’t talking about the candidate. They were talking about the thousands of mostly young, out-of-state liberals who descended on Iowa in December, wearing funky orange hats as they tried to persuade the locals to vote for Dean.
Here, then, is the balancing act future campaigns must pull off, and Dean’s did not. On the one hand, candidates need their base to feel invested and listened to. Not only does this enhance voter participation and grassroots organizing–both of which become even more important in the general election–but it simultaneously awakens the kind of small-donor fundraising base every politician dreams of. (In part because, as Trippi rightly points out, small donations tend to be cleaner than big ones.) On the other hand, candidates can’t allow their die-hards to dictate what they say and who they are. The trick is to allow access without relinquishing control.
One simple way to do so–used to great effect by Trippi–is involving the campaign staff with the supporters. It’s hard to overestimate the galvanizing impact Trippi could have on the Deaniacs simply by writing someone a brief email or commenting on a Web log post; you felt that your beliefs and ideas were at least being considered at the highest levels of the campaign. It was far more effective than the impersonal solicitations campaigns use in their direct mail work, and cheaper, too.
Most importantly, online feedback and participation builds communities that are self-perpetuating and self-motivating. When those communities were sullied by mocking right-wingers, blogs would hold mini-fundraising drives, harnessing people’s frustration and anger into fundraising and activism. Eventually, instead of requiring constant contact with the campaign, the communities were sustained by contact and interaction with each other. (Today, with no candidate and no campaign, Dean’s blog still gets 33,000 hits a day, not much less than it drew during the campaign’s peak. That’s because the Deaniacs long ago stopped coming to talk to Howard Dean and began coming to talk to each other.)
But really empowering an online base requires more than just the participation of high-level campaign staff; it requires the candidate. Some of the most inspiring passages in Trippi’s book tell of ideas passed around the campaign blog and picked up by Dean himself. When the Deaniacs raised $1 million for his “Sleepless Summer Tour,” they asked that Dean tote a red bat onstage in recognition of their achievement. He did. Most people watching Dean’s triumphant speech probably didn’t know or care why he was carrying a bat, but to the bloggers and commentators who’d driven the fundraising, it was a crucial show of reciprocity. To its credit, the Kerry campaign seems to have grasped the usefulness of the Internet as a fundraising tool. (Especially that email–with its insignificant overhead and perfect message control–is an exceedingly effective medium through which to raise money.) Last April, Kerry defied expectations by nearly doubling Bush’s fundraising, with about a quarter of his funds coming from online donors. But they would get far more money out of their supporters if they learned how to involve and invest them. Kerry officials don’t drop posts on the blog or take ideas from pro-Kerry bloggers; they don’t communicate with their die-hards in the same way that Dean’s people learned to do.
Still, there are signs that the Kerry campaign is looking for ways to broaden the circle. As The Washington Post reported in July, Kerry’s people have created a rapidly expanding network of policy advisers. Claiming a cast of “thousands,” the network boasts 37 domestic policy councils and more than two dozen devoted to foreign policy. Such an assemblage is obviously too unwieldy to be dictating policy. But maybe that isn’t the point. As one unnamed “close economic advisor” told the Post, “It seems to be working, in the sense of making the outside people feel warm and fuzzy, like they’ve been consulted…so all these folks can say they’re working with the Kerry campaign.” Scale that up for a couple million average Kerry supporters, and we’ll know the revolution is upon us. The voters will finally be treated like the elites.