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Howard Dean and Joe Trippi Create the First Internet-Based Presidential Campaign

(This is excerpt No. 42 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.)

Conservatives would take note of how the liberals used the Internet in 2003 to create the first Internet-based presidential campaign.  It didn’t destroy the Democratic establishment, but it dramatically changed its Howard Dean screamcontours, and both Left and Right realized that politics would never be the same again. 
Three serious presidential campaigns had now utilized alternative media to revolt against their party establishments.  In 1964 Barry Goldwater used below-the-radar political journals, self-published political books, and a grassroots network of citizen activists who met each other through those outlets.  George McGovern was the first to utilize direct mail as his principal modus operandi.  And Howard Dean was the first to utilize the Internet as his principal means of organizing.
In this excerpt, we take a look at what these three politicians had in common.  And we note that as a result of their efforts, all conventional political campaigns now include alternative media as major components in their operations.

The Perfect Liberal Storm

Put together a well-oiled Internet vehicle for liberal activism (, machinery that enables these online activists to meet each other and organize (, and a solitary Democratic politician who passionately voices the discontent of these liberals (Howard Dean), and you’ve got the makings of the perfect liberal storm.  In the end this storm didn’t destroy the Democratic establishment, but it sure changed its contours, just as a major weather storm doesn’t destroy the earth but can change the way it looks.

Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager until after the New Hampshire primary, dismisses the analogy between the boom and crash of the past decade with the Dean campaign.  “The Dean campaign was a dot-com miracle, not a dot-com crash,” he insists.

For proof, go back to January 2003 and see how many political pundits, how many media outlets, how many politicians themselves, were giving any serious attention at all to the presidential campaign of the former governor of the nation’s second smallest state, Vermont.  If you find any, here’s a tougher search:  How many of those pundits gave Dean any chance at all to capture the Democratic Party’s nomination?  No, Dean was viewed as one of those quixotic candidates like Al Sharpton or Dennis Kucinich or Carol Moseley Braun, destined never to get beyond a couple of percentage points of support during the primary process.

What Dean ended up doing, however, was to lead the Democratic polls prior to the first primary in Iowa, to reset the agenda of the Democratic Party, to give the Democrats the resolve to stand up to President Bush rather than to accommodate him, to involve more campaign workers than any of the other candidates, to raise more money than any of the other Democratic candidates, and to be the first politician in either party to raise most of his money online.  He accomplished most of that through the Internet, and his subsequent loss to John Kerry was a failure attributable to conventional politics, not the Internet.  Joe Trippi was right: This was a miracle, not a crash.

Among serious presidential campaigns, Dean’s was the third to revolt against the political establishment by utilizing alternative media as its principal modus operandi.  For Barry Goldwater, the alternative media utilized were below-the-radar political journals, self-published political books, and a grassroots network of citizen activists who met each other through those outlets.  George McGovern was the first to utilize direct mail as his principal modus operandi.  And Howard Dean was the first to utilize the Internet as his principal modus operandi.  All conventional political campaigns now include alternative media as components in their mix, but only Goldwater, McGovern, and Dean made alternative media their major modus operandi – so far.

And what do these three politicians have in common?  Each was a natural rebel, determined to say what he thought, refusing to keep his mouth shut for “the good of the party.”  Each lambasted me-too politics, promising (in Phyllis Schlafly’s words) “a choice, not an echo.”  Each captured a large, idealistic, and motivated following that would change American politics even if it didn’t capture the White House.  And each found himself shut out by traditional routes to power in his party. 

Let’s take a closer look at the Dean Internet campaign to get some idea of how he did it, and how this may now become part of our political landscape.

The First Internet-Based Presidential Campaign

Howard Dean was not the first politician to use the Internet, only the first to use it so effectively.  Back in 1992, another former governor – California’s Jerry Brown – used FTP (file transfer protocol) sites to distribute his policy papers in his presidential campaign.  In 1996 Bob Dole raised several hundred thousand dollars by mentioning his Web site during a debate with Bill Clinton, despite the fact that he managed to get the URL wrong.  In 1998 Jesse Ventura was the first candidate to win statewide office by utilizing the Internet (and talk radio) to galvanize and organize supporters in his independent bid for the statehouse.  In 2000, Steve Forbes became the first candidate to announce his presidential bid on the Internet, while Republican John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley set records for online fundraising for their respective parties.  And in 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger became the new governor of California thanks to a recall campaign fueled by the Internet and talk radio.

Dean, however, not only broke previous Web fundraising records by far, he was the first to make the Internet the central structure of his campaign.  Just as conservatives in the 1970s turned to direct mail because they were shut out of the establishment media, so Dean turned to the Internet in 2003 because he had no nationwide fundraising network and couldn’t afford to hire the field staff he needed.  The Internet gave him a way to break through to the two groups who supported him from the beginning – the gay community (because he signed the nation’s first gay civil union law in Vermont) and the antiwar community (because of his principled opposition to the war, unlike the other Democratic candidates). 

As 2003 arrived, the Dean campaign had less than $200,000 in its coffers.  Turning to the Internet, it raised nearly $3 million in the first quarter, with massive jumps in each successive quarter.  By the end of 2003 the Dean campaign had raised over $40 million, most of it through the Internet – more than any other Democratic candidate.  Some 60 percent of Dean’s contributions were for $200 or less, compared to 31 percent for Wesley Clark, 19 percent for Al Sharpton, 17 percent for John Kerry, 14 percent for Dick Gephardt, and 10 percent each for Bob Graham and Joe Lieberman.  On the GOP side, President Bush got only 17 percent of his contributions in donations of $200 or less.

Another important comparison, this time with direct mail donors: Web contributors on average are 15 years younger than non-Web contributors (45 compared with 60) and they give more than twice as much money ($45 compared with $20).

Learning how to raise campaign money over the Internet was a major accomplishment of the Dean campaign.  But somebody was going to be the first to do it, simply because Americans were becoming more at ease with the Internet.  As Joe Trippi has said, “The Net wasn’t mature enough prior to now.  You needed all those Americans to buy a book at, or to do an eBay auction, and to get used to using their credit card or doing something online.”  An even greater accomplishment of the Dean campaign was demonstrating how to communicate with your supporters over the Internet.

As we’ve mentioned before, using the Internet as just another platform for preaching to your audience is underutilizing it, and possibly counterproductive.  The Dean campaign used the Internet to involve its supporters, just as had done with its members.  And its deal with allowed the Dean campaign to sponsor its own meetups and to keep the e-mail addresses of its members who signed on through that site – provisions that were essential elements of its growth.  Eventually over 600,000 people would sign up to get on the Dean mailing list, nearly half of them through, and well over 150,000 of these 600,000 would contribute to the campaign.  As an example of the value of the Meetup tie-in, on one day alone – November 4, 2003 – some 138,000 Dean supporters met at 820 locations to work for their candidate.

One of Joe Trippi’s first jobs, once he signed on with Dean, was to start the first official campaign blog for a presidential candidate.  It was enormously popular and successful, giving supporters a chance to vent their opinions and concerns, to communicate with each other, and to offer suggestions to the campaign – some of which were adopted, not just read.  More than 100,000 messages were posted on the campaign’s Blog for America. 

One especially popular feature was the fundraising drive just before the end of a calendar quarter, when campaigns have to report the amount of money they’ve raised to the Federal Election Commission.  Most campaigns keep their goals and their progress secret, to avoid negative media attention if they fail to reach their goals.  Not the Dean campaign.  The Dean Web site featured a baseball slugger trying to hit his fundraising goal, and showing his progress.  So many supporters wrote in to urge more contributions and announce their own that at one point the blog crashed.  “It got to be almost like a Jerry Lewis telethon,” said Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University. 

People who support an insurgent anti-establishment candidate are notably self-reliant, pro-active, and tend to “do their own thing” without clearing it first with headquarters.  In the Goldwater campaign, grassroots volunteers would write and pass out their own literature, hold events, and talk to the press without thinking of getting some higher-up’s approval.  On occasion this proved embarrassing to the campaign leadership, but the overall benefits of all that spontaneous energy far outweighed the costs.  With the Internet, grassroots democracy is even more firmly entrenched.  “Deaniacs” could turn to the campaign’s Web site for how-to advice on the mechanics of campaigning, but for the most part they were on their own, even creating their own local campaign Web sites without supervision from headquarters.  Howard Dean and his campaign executives wisely understood that the Internet is not a suitable environment for micromanagement.  And they actually listened to their supporters, learning from them, when the usual campaign process is for the candidate and his handlers to speak, while the workers listen.

It is appropriate that Wired magazine’s Rave Award for politics in 2004 was shared by the Dean campaign’s Joe Trippi and Scott Heiferman, cofounder and CEO of Meetup.  Between them, they have rewired grassroots organizing for the Internet age.  Having said this, what went wrong?  Howard Dean may indeed be “the most consequential loser since Barry Goldwater,” as the Wall Street Journal put it in an editorial, but the bottom line still is: He lost.

This is not the place to go into a lengthy analysis of what went wrong, but some things can be noted.  Gobs of money were raised, but it was spent as fast as it was raised, often wastefully, leaving the campaign – incredibly – essentially broke on the eve of the first actual votes in Iowa and New Hampshire.  There never seemed to be anything resembling a business plan, which campaigns need as much as new business ventures.  And as liberal columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr. put it, “It was always more of a movement than a presidential campaign.”


America’s Right Turn serialization:

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  1. “Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives”
  2. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the West’s First Media Revolution”
  3. “What Conservatives Can Learn from America’s First Media Revolution”
  4. “The Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  5.  “More Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  6. “Money in Politics:  Everyone Complains About It, but Every Political Movement Needs It”
  7. “Conservatives in the Wilderness: American Politics in 1955” 
  8. Conservatives in the Wilderness: Restless, but Lacking Leadership
  9. “How William F. Buckley Jr. Gave Birth to the Conservative Movement”
  10. “How Barry Goldwater Gave Political Voice to the New Conservative Movement”
  11. “Why There Was No Mass Libertarian Movement—Lessons for Conservatives”
  12. “1964:  This is What Happens When the Other Side Controls the Mass Media”
  13. “Thanks to Shamelessly Dishonest Liberals, Conservatives Have No Chance in 1964
  14. “How Conservatives Turned a Lemon (1964) Into Lemonade (the Future Successful Movement”
  15. Conservatives Test a New Secret Weapon
  16. “Conservatives Use Their Secret Weapon to Create a Revolution”
  17. “Conservatives Grow Under the Radar, Testing Their New Secret Weapon”
  18. “Why Direct Mail Is So Powerful for Insurgents—Like Conservatives”
  19. “Creating the Religious Right, and Electing Reagan, Using Alternative Media”
  20. “Phyllis Schlafly Showed Us How to Stop an ‘Inevitable’ Leftist Crusade”
  21. “Liberals Learn How to Use the Conservatives’ Secret Weapon”
  22. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the Man Who Built the Modern Liberal Movement”
  23. “Morton Blackwell Trains Tomorrow’s Conservative Cadre”
  24. “From FDR to Rush Limbaugh: The Talk Radio Revolution”
  25. “Talk Radio Demolishes Hillarycare, and Provides a New Battleground for the Culture Wars”
  26. “Why Liberals Fail—While Conservatives Succeed—on Talk Radio”
  27. “How the NRA Used Alternative Media to Save the Second Amendment”
  28. “C-SPAN Starts the Revolution Against TV’s Liberal Gatekeepers”
  29. “Fox Replaces CNN as King of Cable, Giving Conservatives a Voice on TV News”
  30. “Direct Mail: A Giant Step Forward for Political Democracy”
  31. “Why Direct Mail is the Smartest Form of Advertising for Conservative Candidates”
  32. “The 1970s: Healthy Growing Pains in the Emerging Conservative Movement”
  33. “Rush Limbaugh Becomes Talk Radio’s #1 Star; the “Tea Bag” Rebellion Becomes Its First Big Victory”
  34. “Cable TV—With Fox in the Lead—Becomes America’s Primary Source of Campaign News” 
  35. Political News and Impact: Newspapers Tumble—and Liberals Face Competition
  36. “Conservative Writers Get New Venues as Columnists and in Magazines”
  37. Conservative Authors Fire a New Weapon: Books with Ideas That Have Consequences
  38. “The World Turned Upside Down: How the Internet Empowers the Individual”
  39. Why Politicians Like Hillary Don’t Want You to Have the Choices Offered by the Internet
  40. “Conservatives and Libertarians Embrace the Internet”
  41. Liberals Use the Internet to Move On Past the Clinton Impeachment
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