Howard Dean was going to take back America; he was going to take back South Carolina and Oklahoma and Michigan and California. Instead, he … well, what did he do?
Inarguably, he used the Internet to organize and raise money much more effectively than any previous political campaign.
This from the Washington Post:
His success has been attributed to any number of real-world factors: his straight-talking persona, his opposition to the war in Iraq, the favorable media coverage he enjoyed much of last year. But experts also credit his campaign with developing savvy online fundraisers — essentially online telethons that posted their goals alongside urgent deadlines and icons counting the donations as they came in.
It was a simple idea, employed by any number of public TV stations. But it was a campaign innovation, allowing Dean to turn otherwise mundane fundraising pitches into a high-tech call to arms. Experts said it was a significant improvement from how candidates had previously asked for money online — usually, by simply urging supporters to send a check sometime before the next election.
That Dean’s money came mostly in small contributions from hundreds of thousands of supporters was particularly impressive, given his party’s anemic efforts over the years to harvest such small donations. Republicans have long raised more from small donors, while Democrats have instead relied on “soft money” — big, unregulated contributions that federal candidates and parties no longer may accept.
Dean ended up with a network of 600,000-plus supporters. More than 300,000 of them contributed to his campaign, mostly in small amounts, for a total of more than notes
It turns out that the Internet was not as brilliant a way to organize voters and caucus-goers as Joe Trippi, Dean’s deposed campaign manager, promised. But it did pull new people into politics and proved to Democrats that there is an alternative to relying on big concentrations of cash. The Dean campaign had the soul of a church. The Dean people gave when the spirit moved them, $25 this month, $10 the next. Democrats know that Dean bottled power. That’s why the organizers of this year’s Senate and House campaigns have been falling all over themselves to get Dean to help them out. Whoever wins the Democratic presidential nomination had better do the same.
Then, of course, there was the blog, which made thousands of Deaniacs feel like they had a role in the campaign and created a sense of community that sustained them through grueling months of campaigning. And there’s no doubt that he spurred the other candidates to follow suit: Kerry and Edwards both have blogs now.
Dean, in other words, pioneered a new style of campaigning. Paul Boutin of Slate writes:
“Years from now, the online Deaniacs—with their Meetups, their blogs, the mailing lists they put us on without asking—will be the defining aspect of Campaign 2004. For a while there, their enthusiasm made pollsters and pundits believe that former campaign manager Joe Trippi, by substituting interactive, free-for-all dialogues for top-down, Karl Rove-style messaging, really could use the Net to take back the White House.
In fact, a close look at the evidence suggests that Trippi is probably right to defend his novel approach. It didn’t win Dean the nomination, but savvy use of the Internet got the candidate much further than anyone expected.”
That Dean didn’t thereby win the nomination doesn’t invalidate the high-tech approach. Dean failed despite Trippi’s innovations, not because of them. As a political scientist quoted in the Post says, “I don’t think we should blame the Internet for his failure. It was not his salvation, and it was not his failure. It was, quite simply, a tool that he actually used pretty effectively.”
Dean’s problem, it seems, was that although he got the medium right, his message never quite clicked. Matt Bai writes in the New York Times:
“And what Dr. Dean and much of the news media now claim as his political legacy — using the Internet to raise money, forcing his party toward confrontation — is merely tactical. As LaFollette could have told him, a truly transcendent political campaign has to be rooted in something deeper than fervent rhetoric and small policy variations. It has to be daring enough to survive the candidacy itself.
“In the end, the tragedy of Howard Dean’s impressive grass-roots campaign is that he will be remembered not for any lasting reform agenda, but for the missed opportunity to create one.”
Dean tapped into Democratic anger: anger about the 2000 election, anger about the war in Iraq, anger about the Bush administration. He opened the way for Edwards, Kerry, and (briefly) Clark to take stronger stances against Bush. Tom Carver of the BBC writes:
“This time last year, millions of American Democrats were feeling angry and frustrated at the war in Iraq.
Their leaders in Congress seemed incapable of standing up to the Republicans. People were resigned to Bush the war leader getting a second term. Then suddenly this doctor from Vermont appeared, articulating a clear unequivocal opposition to both George Bush and the war. He said what Democrats thought. In a plain no-nonsense way. And in the space of a few weeks, he went from zero to hero.
Howard Dean’s greatest legacy to the Democratic Party is that he gave it backbone and courage to stand up to the Bush White House.”
Maura Keefe, a senior advisor to Dean’s campaign, writes for the Washington Post that what drew her to the Dean campaign was “Howard Dean’s clear message to Democrats: Stand for something or perish.”
Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard thinks that Dean’s lasting influence will owe less to his technical and tactical innovations than to his having pulled the Democratic party leftward :
“The answer is not what he’s been credited with. Sure, he raised money on the Internet, activated some previously inactive Democratic voters, and built an impressive database. Fine. But his most important legacy was pulling the Democratic presidential candidates to the left and encouraging Democrats to criticize President Bush with venom. This hasn’t improved their chances of ousting President Bush.
The myth about Dean is that he jump-started a moribund Democratic party and brought new people into the fold. …
This is nonsense. If Dean had the effect of enlarging the party, there’s one place we would have seen it consistently–in the caucuses and primaries. But it didn’t happen.
The silliest point about Dean is made by friendly pundits. They say he aroused a sleeping Democratic party. Sleeping? Democrats were enraged by the way the 2000 presidential race was decided and infuriated by Bush’s use of the homeland security issue to whip them in 2002. They were, as the press noted, rising in anger. Dean tapped the anger, true. But he didn’t create it.”
Maybe not, but he did fulfill an important role as a catalyst. This from the Los Angeles Times:
The five-term governor of Vermont energized new voters by the thousands, demonstrated the power — and limits — of the Internet as a political tool and spurred other Democrats to sharply challenge the president, even before his popularity began to slip in opinion polls.
“Howard Dean created an opportunity for Democrats — who had been very timid, tepid and restrained — to find their voice in this election,” said Jonah Seiger, a scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. “He burst on the scene … and energized the party … and in so doing, he created space for all the others.”
Added Democratic strategist Donna Brazile: “He gave the Democratic Party back its electoral groove. He made it fashionable again to fight.”