Blogland’s man of the people

The Web has found its candidate for president, and his name is Howard Dean.

Topics: Howard Dean,

Blogland's man of the people

Late on Sunday night, Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s presidential campaign manager, posted a short note on the campaign’s blog to thank Dean’s supporters for a successful three-month period of fundraising. Since April, Dean had raised $6.3 million, more money than any other Democratic candidate — but with the end of the financial quarter approaching in less than 24 hours, Trippi had one more request for Howard Dean fans all over the Web: “We are going to make one last push to $6.5 million tomorrow and see what happens,” he wrote. “We need your help — spread the word that this campaign is rolling — that we are making history together. Get one more person to sign on to the campaign and contribute.”

The cash poured in. By 10 a.m. on Monday morning, Dean had collected $70,000 through his Web site. At 11, he was up to $115,000. Every half hour, Mathew Gross and Zephyr Teachout, the campaign’s full-time bloggers, posted updates on the money count, adding, along the way, further incentives for people to pry open their wallets.

“Howard Dean will personally call five donors, selected randomly, who contribute on the Internet today,” Gross wrote at 11:30. But by that time it appeared that few incentives were needed. The unofficial network of blogger activists who agglomerate around Dean, a web of folks who spend seemingly every spare minute studying the rhythms of his campaign, had already been activated. These people watched the numbers and pressed their friends and neighbors to give and give some more. On Dean Nation, the oldest and most popular Dean blog, the day was renamed the “$7 million Monday” — which was fast becoming true. Dean’s one-day tally is astonishing: $287,000 by 2 p.m., $380,000 by 4 p.m. Then $593,000. $645,000. $757,000. And by midnight, $802,083, bringing Dean’s total for the quarter to more than $7 million.

Meet Howard Dean: physician, former governor of Vermont, and presidential candidate from the great state of Blogland. The Dean campaign is enamored of the Internet; more than any other candidate in history, Dean has put the Web at the center of his run to the White House. He’s certainly not the first candidate to raise large sums online. In the 2000 presidential primaries, both John McCain and Bill Bradley found that their Web sites could generate millions. But Dean’s money success — which comes seven months before the first primaries and while the candidate’s poll numbers are in the single digits — as well as his substantial first-place finish in MoveOn.org’s online primary, is not, his campaign insists, the point of his Internet strategy. Rather, the money and the MoveOn showing are evidence of a larger truth: When you assimilate the culture of the Web, you’ll win the blessings of the Web. In today’s connected world, those blessings are not insignificant.

The breadth of Dean’s online universe — which stretches across e-mail, the Web, wireless instant messaging, a broadband television station, and, for folks who feel there’s more to life than just computers, Internet-aided real-world “meetups” — can hardly be overstated. At the center of this storm is Dean’s Blog for America, which gives supporters a peek into the campaign’s daily goings-on. The blog, says Gross, allows Dean fans to feel they’re in some way part of the campaign. “Most people are using the Internet as a means of broadcasting a message,” Gross says, “but what Blog for America does is give people a chance to send us instantaneous feedback.” People do this, he says, through the comments box for each blog entry, and some of them do it by setting up their own blogs — and people at the Dean campaign seem to love reading these blogs.

“It’s kind of like a routine for me,” says Trippi, the campaign manager, who explains he caught the “blog bug” in April 2002, before Dean became a candidate. “What happens is, I spend a lot of my day talking on the phone with supporters. It’s pretty easy while I’m doing that to check out all these sites.”

Dean’s success online is especially striking when you consider that the campaign more or less stumbled onto it. The blog and Dean’s use of the Meetup service to plan campaign events — which has already garnered more than 50,000 supporters around the country who’ve pledged to meet, celebrate, and do a bit of work for the campaign on the first Wednesday of every month — were ideas suggested to Dean by people on the Internet. Trippi and others in the campaign were quick to see the potential in these tools, but “wouldn’t we love to say that we planned it all this way?” says Courtney O’Donnell, a campaign spokeswoman.

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In the past, Dean’s rivals, all of whom have a very traditional, one-site Web presence, have pooh-poohed his campaign’s Internet savvy. “Some of [Dean's] Meetup events look like the bar scene from ‘Star Wars,’” an unnamed aide to another candidate told the New Republic in May. But when called for comment on Dean’s Internet strategy in light of his success on Monday, many of Dean’s main rivals didn’t want to talk about it.

A spokesman in Joseph Lieberman’s office did say that he was pleased with his own campaign’s online efforts, which raised “thousands and thousands that we did not expect to.” And recently, John Kerry’s campaign also joined Meetup; about 4,000 people have signed up for events for the Massachusetts senator.

But political experts don’t seem to know what to make of Dean’s Internet strategy. Many of them have discounted it. Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s 2000 campaign manager, told the Washington Times on Wednesday that she was “skeptical” of Dean’s boasts about what the Internet could do. And William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University, says that he’s “not convinced that a whole lot of his success is attributable to the Web.” The skepticism is understandable: When you slip into Dean’s online world, with its all-Howard-all-the-time ethos, one can easily mistake the obsessive love of a certain activist few for something larger and more momentous. But it is easy to wonder how real it all is.

But if you ask that, says Karl Frisch, a professional political consultant and a full-time Dean blogger, you have to also ask whether the alternative political reality — that of the “Washington media establishment” — is any more “real.” “How many times have they been wrong?” Frisch asks.

Last December, Jerome Armstrong, a Dean supporter from early on and a political blogger who runs the MyDD blog, posted an item criticizing Joe Trippi, at the time an advisor to Dean, for how he was running the campaign. “I said he was full of crap,” Armstrong says. “My basic thing was, Dean needs to come out of the chute and aim for winning Iowa and New Hampshire,” but Armstrong had read an article in which Trippi seemed to be saying that Dean could do OK if he merely placed second to Al Gore — who had not yet bowed out — in those states. To his surprise, Armstrong got an e-mail message from Trippi. “He said, ‘Give me a call, let’s talk.’ And then he asked me what I thought they should be doing with the campaign. I said, ‘Get a blog.’”

Rick Klau, another long-time political blogger and an executive at a software company in Illinois, called the Dean campaign last summer asking if he could help them out with anything. “At the time the campaign was just two people in an office,” he says, but several months later Dean’s people called him back and asked him what they thought the campaign should do to get the word out. “One of the things I said was, ‘You need to have a weblog.’”

Then, in March, Mathew Gross, who had previously written for MyDD, moved to Burlington from his home state of Utah and began working with the campaign. Gross wrote a memo to his bosses at the campaign, saying, “I think we should get into the blogosphere.” Trippi, who had just been made campaign manager, knew all about the blogs by this point. “And so he said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

The campaign’s use of Meetup came about in much the same haphazard way. In January, Aziz Poonawalla, a 29-year-old graduate student in Houston and the proprietor of Dean Nation, received an e-mail from William Finkel, the outreach coordinator at Meetup, pointing out how great the service would be for political organizing. Poonawalla saw that a few hundred Dean supporters had already signed up with the service, so he plugged it on his blog. Hundreds of people began signing up for Dean on Meetup, but it was a while before Trippi endorsed the service.

“It took the campaign a few more months to notice that they had the nascent grassroots organization that they wanted to build already growing right under their noses!” Poonawalla said in an e-mail.

Now, by many accounts, Trippi tracks the Meetup numbers religiously (on Tuesday, the count passed 50,000), and he sees real political value in having all those people pledged for Dean. “He’s brilliant in the way he’s starting to use these people to work for the campaign,” says Anna Brosovic, a Unix system administrator in Arlington, Texas, who also blogs on Dean Nation. On Wednesday night, for example, thousands of people are expected to meet for Dean in 230 places around the country to launch their “Adopt an Iowan” campaign. The supporters will write letters to Democrats in Iowa telling them to remember Dean during the Iowa Caucus, which will be held early next year. The idea “was generated from supporters who said the people of Iowa have such a powerful influence on these elections and we’d like to connect with them,” said O’Donnell, a campaign spokeswoman. (To comply with election laws, the Dean campaign will cover the cost of postage to Iowa.)

Getting people involved in this way might seem a bit wacky; whether a letter from a Dean supporter in another state can influence an Iowan is certainly up in the air. But it’s precisely the Dean campaign’s willingness to involve people in its effort in these unconventional ways that seems to resonate with his supporters. Everything about Dean online seems calculated to keep voters engaged. “Dean’s site gives you a million things to do every day,” Frisch says. The campaign, from the outside, appears malleable, open to suggestions from all who want to offer them.

But what’s odd about Dean’s blog is how strangely absent the candidate seems from the process. Dean only occasionally posts entries. After Monday’s fundraising success, Dean posted a short note of gratitude. More often, though, the blog features the routine observations of the campaign staff. A not untypical post goes like this one, from a staffer named Kate O’Connor, posted on Sunday evening: “It’s around 8:30pm and we are driving (in a hybrid vehicle!) from New Hampshire to New York City. We took the red-eye in from Las Vegas last night so we are a little tired. Matt is taking pity on me and has agreed to post a series of pictures from our day in New Hampshire so I don’t have to write it all out! I hope you enjoy them!!”

If you’re a skeptical journalist, you might be tempted to ask whether this attitude is genuine; is there something calculated about the nonchalance? Does Trippi pay attention to what bloggers say because he really cares, or because he knows — and he knew before anyone else — that they could be a key to electoral victory? “He obviously knew what they could do,” says MyDD’s Armstrong. “He was able to see early on that the Internet could be what he calls the ‘perfect storm of democracy,’ where the Net activism connects with the right candidate at just the right time.”

And there may even be some sound political theory to support Trippi’s use of the Web. Markos Zuniga, who runs Daily Kos, one of Trippi’s favorite political blogs, says: “Traditionally the Democratic Party has been beholden to special interests. For the Democrats it’s been labor unions and environmental organizations. I have nothing against those interests, but the problem is that the rank and file of the party have never been represented — it’s the people with money that get a say. What the blogosphere does is create this online community where people from all walks of life can support the party, and if the party plays its cards right, it can have these people rallying around the party instead of around their own special interest. They could be more like Republicans, who’ve had all this success by rallying around their party.”

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