Old School About New Methods

The legacy of the first blogging candidate.

by / March 29, 2004
When former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean won the presidential primary in his home state on Super Tuesday -- a full two weeks after withdrawing from the campaign -- it was an appropriate end for his upstart campaign. It also showed how Dean was like the technology that made him famous -- he and the Internet changed everything, just not always the way we would have thought.

The New Englander catapulted to front-runner status thanks to an Internet strategy devised by campaign manager Joe Trippi, which cast Dean as the nation's first blogging presidential candidate, whose war chest would be filled with small donations made over the Web.

Pundits' reactions to the strategy correlated to the campaign's success at any given moment. Before Dean's meteoric rise, the strategy was dismissed as geeky nonsense. When the Internet investment began paying dividends, the campaign was lauded for its digital sophistication and begat imitations from rivals. Then came the implosion in Iowa, allowing observers to revert to the original position by gleefully noting what Salon.com called the bursting of the "Web-conquers-politics bubble."

The bubble reference ties Dean to the worst moments of dot-com and mania. The Dean campaign had a burn rate reminiscent of the heady late-1990s. The decision to bet $40 million on the caucus season's opening volley draws immediate parallels to dot-coms that indebted themselves to buy a single Super Bowl ad for brand awareness and buzz. The subsequent request to campaign staff to stay on the job even though there was no money to make payroll will sound familiar to anyone who worked for a startup and heard at least one "don't give up on the dream" speech from a charismatic if quirky leader.

The Dean campaign deserves credit for making real-time online fund raising a mainstream activity -- particularly among political process newcomers. That said, the Democratic Party is clearly uncomfortable with earlier conclusions that the good doctor single-handedly reinvigorated the base, or expanded it with net new voters, or both.

For his part, Dean wants to transition from a presidential campaign to a progressive movement within the party. The failed candidate is taken seriously because of a byproduct of his Internet strategy -- an e-mail list of some 600,000 supporters (although a Newsweek analysis suggests only 25,000 activists).

Well qualified mailing lists are worth much fine gold. An eight-month general election campaign will make that list unbearably enticing for Dean and Democrats who would like to use the list in support of the party's nominee. Giving in to that urge may risk alienating those on the list, but the privacy policy on Dean's site leaves the door open: "Dean for America may share information with its successor organizations, if any."

Dean's Internet positioning created synergies with the advocacy-minded MoveOn.org, and the lesser known meetup.com, which was created to answer one of the most enduring Internet criticisms -- that it only further isolated people in their homes at the cost of community involvement. The site helps people with a common interest hook up online, so they can meet face-to-face and do something real in their neighborhoods. Dean supporters account for 183,000 of the site's 1 million users -- compared to 59,000 John Kerry supporters -- underscoring Wired's observation that "participation, not policy, was key."

Indeed, far from campaign politics, general government could take a page from the meetup.com approach in making it easier for agencies, nonprofits and interested individuals who want to participate in making their communities better. It's already used in some 612 cities by service groups and self-styled activists. Can government afford not to be part of it?
Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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