Howard’s Web

The Internet couldn’t save Dean, but it could still help Kerry.

I’m going to miss Howard Dean. The rest of the race will be much less fun without him and, more to the point, without his vociferous army of supporters on the Web. 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.

Now that the governor has dropped out, the Kerry and Edwards camps will be courting the Deaniacs’ votes. But they’re much less likely to embrace Trippi’s supposedly Net-savvy campaign tactics, which have lately been seen as something of an embarrassment: The Dean phenomenon, it’s now assumed, was a bubble as phony as a dot-com IPO. When the campaign began to falter, the New Republic’s Ryan Lizza offered the following postmortem: “All these high-tech innovations—from the Meetups to the Web radio show—were supposed to enable the campaign to bypass the mainstream media. Instead, it seems caught in an echo chamber populated by Dean partisans.” As one online grouch put it, Dean might have won if his supporters hadn’t stayed home playing with their iPods.

Trippi himself offers a different excuse: He blames the media. Before an audience of techie conference-goers last week, Trippi claimed that when Al Gore endorsed Dean, “Alarm bells went off in every news room and in every campaign. The alarm said, ‘Kill Howard Dean right now.’ It wasn’t a dot-com crash,” he said. “It was a dot-com miracle being shot down.”

I don’t buy either explanation, having watched the Dean bubble from birth to bust. (It was impossible not to watch, since supporters converted most of the Internet into the Dean Channel—even private tech mailing lists I’m on quickly became peppered with fund-raising pleas from Dean supporters.) The campaign wasn’t just an echo chamber: Dean had a very real lead in polls taken among normal people, not just Netheads, up until the last days before Iowa. There’s no reason not to believe those numbers could have translated to a proportional vote in the primaries. And Dean wasn’t taken down in an orchestrated hit by TV journalists, either. He blew his lead himself, beginning the moment he started snapping at potential voters, telling Iowans like Dale Ungerer to “sit down.”

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. Here, Slate offers its end-of-term report card on Dean’s Web strategy.

Fund Raising: A+
Dean raised 40 million bucks! Can Kerry—or Edwards, or any candidate—afford to pass up that kind of money when Bush is sitting on $200 million? According to contribution charts at fundrace.org, Dean’s campaign did particularly well at drawing repeat donations from large numbers of people dispersed over a wide range of ZIP codes. Sounds like a classic example of the Internet’s reach and convenience. The site also notes that Kerry hasn’t done nearly as well in soliciting such donations. His campaign could take a page from Trippi’s book: There’s more to raising cash online than putting a donate button on a candidate’s home page and presuming partisan loyalty will do the rest. It requires persistent online reminders from potential contributors’ friends and from the sites they actually frequent and read. A friend surprised me yesterday by admitting he’s given $150 to Dean in several batches, in part because “they made it so easy.”

Media Buzz: B
This one’s a wash at best. Only one person gets to be the Internet Candidate, so it’s probably wise for Kerry and Edwards to keep mum about the power of Meetups now that they’ve they failed to hand the primaries to Dean. But it would be stupid to shut them down. The point is to allow your supporters to persuade the undecided one at a time. And if trusting your fans to speak for you in their own words makes you seem less aloof and less arrogant, well, Kerry the Animatronic Lincoln has nothing to lose here.

Getting Out the Vote: Incomplete
Depending on whom you talk to, Trippi either turned a sub-Kucinich candidate into a front-runner, or he built Dean an online playground for true believers who then didn’t bother to convert the rest of the electorate. Everyone’s got a hunch one way or the other. But no one has yet come forward with hard research on how many of Dean’s online supporters actually went out and voted for Dean, how many stayed home, and how many were eventually persuaded to vote for one of the other candidates by more traditional means. And no one has yet determined how many of the people who did vote for Dean were newbies at the polls. Without that data, I can’t award a grade.

Unfortunately, this last point is the one that matters. Recent polls showed Kerry and Bush at a dead heat. But it’s not so much a 50-50 split as 25-25—half the voting-age population has failed to show up in recent elections. Bringing in new voters—if you could find a way to do it—would swing an election much more easily than converting the people who already plan to cast their ballots for the other guy.

Should Kerry’s people encourage ex-Deaniacs to start blogging for Kerry? Should the Edwards folks recruit them to orchestrate online fund drives? If you buy the iPod theory that Dean polled high among people who wouldn’t log off long enough to vote, such tactics would be suicide. But if you believe—and I do—that Dean got so much play online because Trippi’s campaign energized a demographic that normally snoozes through elections, the remaining candidates should stop and think before dismissing the lessons of Dean’s campaign. Perhaps Kerry should make a special trip to Harvard to court the Berkman Center’s A-list of bloggers for their support. I can’t promise him a miracle, but I can guarantee it’s one place this week he won’t be asked about the intern.