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Stirrings on the Right Side of the Internet

(This is excerpt No. 43 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.)

Howard Dean showed how to use the Internet to create a national campaign, raise money nationally, and increase the candidate’s poll numbers nationally.  But in the end, that first Internet campaign failed, and we had Governor Arnoldsome ideas about why it failed, and how future campaigners—Left or Right—could do better.

In 2004, when America’s Right Turn was published, conservatives were behind the liberals in learning how to use the Internet for political campaigns.  But they were learning, and a major campaign victory in California showed what could be done on the Right, using the right strategies and tactics.  

Lessons from the Howard Dean campaign

If liberals or conservatives want to learn how to run a successful ideological campaign – if they actually want to win rather than just put up a good fight – they will have to think hard about how to build the next new and improved version of the Dean campaign.  Some way has to be found to harness the creativity of the next Joe Trippi but insist that he coexist within the campaign structure with a real businesslike CEO.  Likewise, the Internet component may be the top growth engine for the campaign, but it cannot be the campaign.

Here are some of our first thoughts on how to do this. 

First, Dean showed how to use the Internet to create a national campaign, raise money nationally, and increase the candidate’s poll numbers nationally.  That’s great.  Keep everyone, everywhere, working and contributing.  But a major part of the money raised nationally then has to be deployed in the first states to vote, primarily Iowa and New Hampshire, and then not just with an Internet campaign.  Spend the money in Iowa and New Hampshire to build a real on-the-ground field organization and a corps of local volunteers.  Most people don’t take too kindly to out-of-staters and strangers telling them how to vote, no matter how enthusiastic and well intentioned they are.

Second, the Dean campaign did a great job of listening to its grassroots supporters, not just preaching to them.  But we’ve seen little evidence that they took the same approach when attempting to expand beyond their hard-core cadre and actually convince a majority of Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats to vote for them.  It looks to us as if the Dean campaign was preaching to Iowa Democrats, not listening to them.  That’s the value of a vibrant local field organization.  It can’t (in an ideological campaign) tell you to change your key positions on key issues, but it can tell you which ones to emphasize and which to sublimate, plus give you helpful hints on how to frame the issues for voters in Iowa.  You can’t get that sort of feedback from your national hard-core supporters.  You must be able to campaign simultaneously on both the national level, stroking your hard-core supporters, and local level, convincing voters who have a quite different (but not necessarily antagonistic) perspective. 

Third, give a hard look to the most expensive component of political campaigns: those TV ads.  Ideally every TV ad should ask for a response – a contribution and/or a promise to join the campaign as a volunteer.  That brings in money and addresses.  It’s fine to try some ads months before the primary voting actually begins, but only if they pay for themselves – or if they successfully get people to come to a local campaign event, where you can again try to get them to contribute and volunteer.  General “name recognition” ads are a colossal waste of money, especially at the early stage of the campaign and outside of the first primary states.  The Internet and direct mail give you much cheaper means of spreading the word.  And you can use the money you save to build those field organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire.  You can start advertising over TV stations in those states once you get closer to primary day.

Howard Dean was leading the Democratic pack of candidates before Iowa.  Taking these steps well in advance could have won Iowa for him, and that momentum would have carried him through to the Democratic nomination.


Quotations from Joe Trippi, chairman of the Dean for President campaign:

“If television took the grass roots out of politics, the Internet will put it back in.”

“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.”

(Asked by the New York Times about the original reception to his Internet campaign ideas.) “Well, the other campaigns laughed at us.  I mean, we were the bar scene out of ‘Star Wars’ – that’s what they thought a meetup was.”

“There’s finally a medium in the country that allows the American people to have control of it.”

“The political press has no clue what the Internet is; they put it in their old context.  The Internet community doesn’t understand the hard cold realities of the political process.  This is the problem/disconnect.”

“Dean taught the party how to be an opposition party.  Suddenly there was a debate about WMD [weapons of mass destruction], a debate that started because of the Internet, which made everyone realize the direction needed.  The four remaining candidates are against the war, taking on Bush’s foreign policy regardless of how they previously voted.”

“The Dean campaign was a miracle, not a dot-com crash.”

“The Internet is the most powerful tool put in the hands of the average American.”

“This is just the beginning of real empowerment of people.”

“You gotta believe.”  (In an e-mail message to supporters six days before the Iowa caucus.)

Stirrings on the Right side of the Internet

Most, but not all, of the political activism on the Internet for the 2003-2004 election cycle has been on the Left.  Conservatives, for the most part, have been trying to copy what the liberals have successfully been pursuing.

Meetup officials approached, an online operation of the Heritage Foundation, in the fall of 2003.  Howard Dean and the other Democrats were utilizing Meetup to the max because of the Democratic primaries.  Meetup wanted people to understand that it is a nonpartisan, nonideological vehicle, open to conservatives and Republicans as well.  Would Townhall be interested in sponsoring meetups for conservatives?

A deal was struck, and Townhall issued a “conservative alert” through its online newsletter: “Liberals such as the ACLU, Howard Dean, and the Sierra Club have already had successful meetups.  Don’t let conservatives remain ‘the silent majority’ – make the Conservative Meetup the most successful Meetup yet.”

Conservatives responded so enthusiastically that Meetup CEO Scott Heiferman told CNN News it was the fastest takeoff in Meetup’s history – 11,000 in the first month, nearly 20,000 in over 500 cities by the end of the second month. has also sparked a reaction on the Right, appropriately called  RightMarch was founded by conservative Internet entrepreneur Bill Greene.  “Our motif is to counter the actions of liberal groups,” Greene told CBS News in March 2004.  “And so if a group like does something, then will usually respond to what they’re doing and send out alerts.”

RightMarch’s Web site describes itself as “an umbrella Web site for many conservative organizations, as well as thousands of hardworking, patriotic Americans across the country.”  It suggests actions to take against amnesty for illegal aliens, it keeps visitors current on the activities of its own political action committee (PAC), and it announces publication of a full-page ad in USA Today backing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

And in California, conservative activists used the Internet and talk radio in 2003 to launch the recall petition that toppled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.  While Schwarzenegger wasn’t the conservatives’ first choice, most of them (not all) jumped on his bandwagon when it became obvious that his Hollywood superstar status offered the best hope for getting rid of Davis.

To understand the odds against the recall petition when it was launched, consider that 31 previous recall efforts had failed to make the ballot.  The state’s Left-establishment media, led by the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, was opposed to it.  The state Republican leadership, accustomed to playing a dead man barely walking, didn’t want to get involved.  And President Bush’s point man in California, fundraiser Gerald Parsky, was opposed to a recall because he thought it would derail momentum for Bush in 2004.

Two things turned the tide despite those odds: overwhelming public disdain for the ineffectual Governor Davis … and the alternative media.  In this instance, talk radio was the agitator that built support for the recall petition, and the Internet was the facilitator, making it easy to contribute money and download petition forms.  Former GOP state legislator Howard Kaloogian was a key organizer of the radio and Internet campaigns.  Leading the charge over the airwaves were radio hosts Melanie Morgan of San Francisco’s KSFO-560 (“the mother of the recall”) and Roger Hedgecock of San Diego’s KOGO Newsradio 600 (Hedgecock is a former mayor of San Diego).  Other important hosts included Eric Hogue in Sacramento (KTKZ 1380), Rick Roberts of KFMB-760 in San Diego, and Los Angeles hosts John and Ken (KFI-640), George Putnam (KPLS-830), Mark Lawson (KRLA-870), and Al Rantel (KABC-790).   

Between them, talk radio and the Internet made mincemeat of the liberal media establishment, the GOP naysayers, and of course the Democratic Party establishment in the state.  It was an awesome demonstration of what can be done on the Right under the right conditions.

America’s Right Turn serialization:

To order American's Right Turn from Amazon please click this link.

  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
  42. “Howard Dean and Joe Trippi Create the First Internet-Based Presidential Campaign”
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