First Mover

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2003-11-17 Print this article Print

Information technology has revolutionized the way political campaigns are carried out and corporations can learn from it. Can better use of the Web carry you to the White House?

page="4"> FIRST MOVER

One reason Dean is ahead on the technology front is that he started early. "We are the great grassroots campaign of the modern era, made of mouse pads, shoe leather, and hope," Dean said in his campaign kick-off speech in June. Almost from the start, the doctor made such information system concepts as "distributed intelligence" and "self-organizing networks'' part of the basic philosophy and structure of his quest for the White House.

Necessity was a major driver of the Internet campaign. In the first quarter of this year, Dean raised only $2.6 million, compared to $5 million for North Carolina Sen. Edwards. Nonetheless, more than 400 individuals had signed up for Dean events by February, when Trippi seized on the Meetup service as a way of jumpstarting interest in Dean nationally. An active anti-war movement had adopted Dean for his own anti-war stance, creating a ready-made grassroots base of support. "We just embraced it," says Trippi.

The campaign simply didn't have enough money or staff to create momentum – or handle it, when it came. "There was a remarkable reaction to the fact that he was running," says Teachout. "We had way too much e-mail to deal with, so we had to empower people in the states, let volunteers handle the e-mail in Oregon. It was very unorthodox."

So the campaign rushed to push away control. "When you build an organization in 17 states, with no money, you give away power as fast as you can," says Teachout of those cash-strapped early days. "We had to let them have control, let them help the campaign how they wanted to help the campaign."

The campaign weblog soon followed, as a way to provide a forum for campaign information and supporter involvement. Dean had never blogged, but "he went quickly from 'What's a blog?' to 'How come we don't have a blog?,'" says Trippi. The Governor isn't much of a writer himself. When he did a guest-blogging stint this summer at the weblog of law professor Lawrence Lessig, he was accused in the comment section of using a ghostwriter. "We said, if we were writing it for him, it would be better written," says chief campaign blogger Matthew Gross, who is also director of internet communications. Most of the entries on Blog for America are written and signed by Teachout, Rospars, or Gross, a sometime environmental activist who joined the campaign in February.

The first version of the weblog went up in March using Blogger, a free online product from Pyra Labs, a company purchased this summer by search engine giant Google. The Pyra approach proved limiting, however: the software ran on Pyra's own servers and didn't meet campaign needs such as a built-in ability to take user comments or the ability to syndicate those comments across multiple blogs. Since June 1, the weblog has run on the campaign's own servers, using the highly-customizable Movable Type software from a San Francisco company called Six Apart.

"At the start, the last place you would go for information on Howard Dean was the Dean website," says Gross, a former indie-rock drummer with a shaved head and an earring. That quickly changed, as Gross and Teachout revamped the Web presence, creating a new homepage and weblog that help campaign managers post information quickly and clearly, and allowed volunteers to click straight to critical organizational tools, like meeting schedules or the Dean Mart of campaign merchandise, such as yard signs and buttons. The team was strengthened by the addition of webmaster Nicco Mele, who joined Dean after attending a March meetup in New York.

The campaign culture was changing, too. As the second quarter drew to an end in June, Dean was startled to see the amount of money that the campaign had raised online posted clearly on Blog for America. Campaigns usually guard such information, the better to spin it when announcing the total. The candidate called Trippi, saying the site had been hacked. But Trippi had OK'd the unconventional tactic, and donors responded by pumping about $1.5 million into the campaign in the last few days of the quarter, pushing the total to $7.5 million.

Today, Blog for America is the nerve center for the campaign. New tools, volunteer activity, fundraising goals and returns, and reviews of debates and press coverage are posted almost as soon as events occur. Volunteers can click though to Meetup and other participatory tools. A "blogroll" of links to other online diaries allow visitors to see the support coming from such groups as Progressive Christians for Dean, Republicans for Dean, Deaf Americans for Dean. There are also links to bloggers who write on politics, such as the pseudonymous liberal pundit known as Atrios and Boston blogging wunderkind Oliver Willis, even if they are not avowed Dean supporters.

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.

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