Howard Dean's fatal system error

The Democratic candidate generated waves of money and enthusiasm via the Net, but his dot-com boom went bust in Iowa.

By Farhad Manjoo
January 22, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)
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If Howard Dean were an Internet company, would he be the smash success of eBay, or the now-defunct The momentum Dean established over the summer and fall bore a striking resemblance to the straight-up curve of the dot-com boom. But, post-Iowa, that curve is pointing in a different direction, and now the question is, as was the case with so many of those dot-coms, was there every really a good product beneath the hype? Or is Dean really just buzz, nothing more than a pet food-selling sock puppet who, buoyed by his campaign's Internet savvy, momentarily came to seem like a really good idea?

Now that Dean has lost a little bit of his luster, it may be the fate of his campaign to suffer endless comparisons to the dot-com crash. Live by the Internet, die by the Internet. Before he became a hit, Dean's Internet strategy -- composed of blogs, Meetups, e-mail groups and countless other Web-based doodads -- was dismissed by his rivals as nothing more than gadget obsession. Then, in the summer, when the Web began paying off for Dean, pundits hailed his digital sophistication, and his rivals leaped into the chaotic blogosphere. Now, conventional wisdom regarding the Internet's power in politics may be poised to shift again. After Dean's poor showing in Iowa, how can anyone still argue -- as some of Dean's supporters were maintaining just a few weeks ago-- that the Internet has fundamentally altered the playing field of presidential politics?


On Tuesday morning, reeling after Iowa, some of Dean's fans were asking similar questions. On Dean's blog, supporters wondered whether, in their passion for the former governor, they may have missed signs of danger on the ground. "All those worries about whether you were preaching to the choir on the blog -- yeah, those were spot-on," said one supporter, identified only as Natalie. "We got really excited about the movement and forgot about the candidacy. It's all well and good to cheer each other on, but clearly that's not enough. If 'the movement' doesn't translate into votes, it's a tempest in a teapot. In Iowa, this campaign was clearly not a revolutionary change in politics so much as a 600,000-strong exercise in navel-gazing. So let's talk about what we're going to do about it."

Others said that Dean's online community -- which can be thick with insider jargon -- had the air of a cult, turning off outsiders. "The heavy duty over-the-top cheerleading of 'us' drove a lot of people away,' wrote Darwin Overson, a 37-year-old Dean supporter in Salt Lake City. "People are looking at over-the-top supporters and saying, I don't want to be one of them. It reflects on Dean poorly ... We should no longer be Deanies, Deany Babies or Deaniacs. We are Dean supporters."

Certainly, Dean's loss in Iowa deflates, at least temporarily, the Web-conquers-politics bubble. As recently as this weekend, when the polls were already showing that they'd have a hard time in Iowa, Dean's people were boasting that their tech-centric campaign would translate into a huge win in Iowa.


Dean's critics "think that the Dean campaign is simply a cybercampaign," Tim Connolly, Dean's Iowa field director, confidently told Slate. "They don't realize that each of those people also lives in the analog world."

Today, those comments smack of late-1990s hubris. Not only did Dean lose by a huge margin in Iowa, but he lost in all of the demographics that his campaign had previously said he would sweep. According to the entrance polls, young people preferred John Kerry over Dean. First-time caucusers -- people Dean's campaign had been holding up as a kind of secret weapon -- chose Kerry and Edwards. And even the people who said they used the Internet for learning about the election chose Kerry.

What happened? Did the Internet fizzle on Howard Dean? "I think Dean happened to Howard Dean," says Michael Cornfield, the research director of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. The problem, as with those high-flying dot-coms, was the product. "Howard Dean did it to himself."


Cornfield doesn't believe that Dean's loss in Iowa makes a case, either way, for the success or failure of the Internet's role in politics. "The big irony from my perspective from following online politics is that a lot of politicians have been loath to get on the Web because they don't like losing control," Cornfield says. "But the 600,000 people in the Dean community stuck with him. I don't think it's the case that his Web-built organization failed him." Instead, Dean wobbled, Cornfield says -- "He's been rude, he didn't look presidential, and all of those television-era character judgments that we make still applied here."

Cornfield concedes that perhaps all of Dean's online adulation fed into that behavior. Virtually every time Dean has been criticized in the mainstream media and by his fellow candidates, his campaign has sent out urgent messages to his base -- and the base has responded by opening its wallets. Could it be that "the success of raising funds by being anti-establishment blinded him to what was actually happening? That's very plausible." But then "someone in the inner circle is not combining his Internet feedback with his other feedback," Cornfield says. "You would think somebody would show him a film clip of what he looks like and what he sounds like."


Others echo that theme. "Did that amplification factor of the closed room make Dean more Dean-like?" asks Jeff Jarvis, a blogger who wondered on Monday night whether blogging hurt Howard Dean. "I answer that by saying no," Jarvis says. "He's still the candidate; he's the one making the mistakes." The problem, though, is that the bloggers supporting Dean weren't able to change Dean's tone, Jarvis says. "You look at him last night" -- at his much-criticized concession speech -- "and he was wacky there. There was nothing to pull him back down. And if you looked at his blog, it was the same thing."

Can the Internet heat up Dean's candidacy now, just as it did in the summer? That doesn't seem very likely, especially as Dean's appeal online seems to have slowed. Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, once predicted that more than 900,000 people would have been signed up for Dean by the end of 2003 -- but the number is now hovering just under 600,000, and Dean's online supporters are expressing concern that it's not growing.

It's possible that after his loss in Iowa, the Internet will abandon Howard Dean, Michael Cornfield says. On Monday night, the campaign put out another appeal for money, and it will be a bad sign for Dean if the money doesn't pour in. Even before next week's New Hampshire race, "We'll be able to see whether he's recovering or not," Cornfield says. "And we'll also see if any of the other candidates who've paid him the tribute of imitating his Internet campaign will have any activity. They all have their blogs and their Meetups, too."


On Dean's blog on Tuesday, supporters didn't seem to be leaving Dean -- but many were clearly disappointed, and they offered many ideas for the candidate. The most popular one seemed to be "Be positive!" as one poster wrote repeatedly. Howard Dean should lose the anger and start talking about his record, many advised.

"We all learned lessons in Iowa," says Jeff Jarvis. "Howard Dean learned the biggest one -- stop being an asshole. We learned about the insular nature of this medium -- we learned not to blow up the bubble, not to put too much emphasis on what this thing can do. It can do miraculous, wonderful things, but it can't win an election. It can change the world, but it can't win an election. What we learned in Iowa was not that blogs didn't help Dean but that they didn't help him in the way he needed."

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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