The Marketing of a President

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2003-11-17
Zephyr Teachout sits at her computer in a dimly lit nook of the Dean for America headquarters in South Burlington, VT, and dreams of the real world. "I'm obsessed with offline,'' says the director of Internet organizing for the Howard Dean presidential campaign.

Teachout is a key architect of one of the most effective marketing efforts in the history of national politics, and the most sophisticated online campaign to date. Using a variety of Internet tools, from the electronic journals known as weblogs to social networking sites, the Dean campaign has propelled the Vermont doctor from near-anonymity to the front of the Democratic pack aiming to replace George W. Bush as chief executive of the United States.

But for Teachout, a 31-year-old lawyer in black high-top sneakers, the campaign is not about the Internet. Online tools are a way to get people to act -- to meet in the physical world, to put up flyers and posters, write letters and checks, speak to other people face to face. And ultimately, to get out and vote. "The Internet is moving from information technology to organizing technology," she says, sitting in a windowless conference room at the campaign's offices. "I e-mail you that I like Dean, maybe you'll tell your wife. If I tell you face to face, you'll tell everyone."

The marketing of presidents and even state and local political candidates may never be the same. By early November, the Dean campaign claimed 500,000 online supporters, up from zero at the start of the year. Only 4 percent of Democratic primary voters said in March they would cast their lot with Dean; now, he is backed by 15 percent of likely voters, according to an early November Zogby poll. That puts him ahead of every other Democratic candidate, by at least five percentage points.

Just as important, he has been able to raise large amounts of money, a critical element in any national campaign. Dean pulled in a record $7.4 million in online donations during the third quarter of 2003, almost half his total for the period. So confident is he in his ability to combine offline and online fund-raising, Dean announced in early November that he would decline to take matching federal funds and go toe-to-toe in raising money with Bush, who is starting his campaign for reelection unopposed in his own party and expects to have $200 million at his disposal.

The lessons of the Dean campaign do not just apply to politics. Teachout and her compatriots have laid bare the essential power of the Internet to marketers of all types, from clothing to industrial equipment to financial services.

Television, radio, print and mail can create awareness and desire for a product. Senders control the presentation and, if intelligently worded and presented, the messages cause an individual or company to vote with its dollars, by buying the product. But the lesson of Dean's campaign is that the Web is not for micromanagers. With the Internet, an effective campaign creates a community that will on its own begin to market your product for you. Properly done, you won't be able – or want — to control it.

"We want to let [grassroots volunteers] have control, let them help the campaign how they want to help the campaign," says Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi.

The trick is to turn the buyers of a product, concept or candidate into evangelists, willing to take action on their own to spur demand. And the recruitment doesn't have to cost much.

The payoff is a powerful multiplier effect that turns anyone into a potential campaign worker. It gives Dean a national network of troops on the ground, unpaid but on task. This is the great innovation of the Dean campaign: using the Internet to raise both support and funding, before rivals figure out how to do the same.

The two most effective tools for Dean have been a Web site that allows users to set up meetings with individuals of similar interests, known as; and the easy-to-use online diaries known as weblogs, or blogs.

Meetup is a service from Meetup Inc., based in New York City, which is free to the end users who attend the events it organizes. Blog software also can be had for free; even commercial-strength versions can be purchased for $200 or less.

Using, the Dean campaign on Nov. 4 got 138,000 volunteers to meet at 820 locations to work for the candidate. "I can imagine the campaign without the blog, but not without Meetup," says Teachout.

Even if Dean fails to capture the Democratic nomination, he has made internetworking technology an integral factor in national campaigns for the foreseeable future. Not since the televised Nixon-Kennedy debates has there been a comparable shift in the art and science of running a campaign.

Candidates aren't going to stop spending millions on television ads to reach mass audiences. But Dean has changed the familiar one-to-many equation of television campaigning, using the Internet to practice retail politics on a national scale. Any politician who wants to build an effective, low-cost field organization – and any business eager to harness the energy of thousands or even millions of customers to build its brand – had better pay attention.


The Dean campaign has used the Meetup service on the Web to get local volunteers together. Campaign staffers set a meeting date and publicize it through email, list serves, and on the campaign's weblog, called Blog for America.

Supporters then go to the Meetup page from a Dean web site ( and take matters into their own hands. Once they register, the volunteers choose a meeting location. They gather at the appointed time and place, with no Dean staff participation needed. Together they perform tasks suggested by headquarters, watch videos of the candidate sent by the campaign, and plot local tactics and strategy.

At one Nov. 4 Meetup event at the Green Bean coffee shop in Greensboro, NC, volunteer coordinator Abigail Seymour printed out Dean position statements from the Web and put them on tables at the back of the cafe. When volunteers showed up, they could easily review Dean's latest policy stands as they went about the day's work: writing personal letters to undecided voters in Iowa.

The Meetup software provided a rough headcount of expected attendees, so the Dean staff sent Seymour enough letter-writing kits to hand out as each volunteer arrived. The kits include stamps, sample letters and the name and address of an undecided Iowan that the Dean campaign hopes to sway. The campaign even sends along a box of ballpoint pens.

Three months before the Iowa caucuses and a year before the general election, Dean had hundreds of these well-equipped local cells working away on a coordinated project. The incremental cost of each volunteer-run operation to the campaign is the cost of materials and shipping; the campaign pays Meetup an undisclosed monthly fee.

Tying all this volunteer activity together is Blog for America, the online journal that is a must-read for journalists following the campaign, a forum for supporters and staffers, a fundraising machine, and even an online talent agency.

At one point, for instance, Teachout needed software developers to create a new Web tool that would allow volunteers to set up their own blogs and read news feeds. She used Blog for America to call for programmers who knew PHP, an open-source scripting language. Eighty-five developers responded almost immediately; more than 180 ended up working on the project.

But meeting and blogging services aren't the only online tools Teachout uses to sate her obsession with offline action. Volunteers can find tools and services on the Dean site that allow them to compose letters, create their own blogs, print posters and flyers, organize local events, and make suggestions on how to maximize the impact of campaign activities. By early October, for example, more than 40,000 hand-written letters had been mailed as a"3"> MULTIPLYING CONTROL

"Mr. President, I'm a blogger. I know blogs. Bloggers are friends of mine. And your site, sir, is not a blog."

Posted by Joe Rospars at 02:18 AM, October 7, 2003

Making these tools widely available via the Internet, rather than husbanding them at campaign headquarters, means Dean's marketers give up a fair amount of control of messages made on behalf of their candidate.

Volunteers create their own weblogs, and say what they will. None have to submit their words to editors or campaign staffers, before posting. The same goes for staffers like Rospars, who writes for Blog for America. "Nobody reads my stuff before it goes. I just hit publish," says Rospars, 22, who was teaching English in Stockholm, Sweden before joining the campaign last spring. "The blog is about humanizing campaign, not just Dean but the staff and supporters."

Teachout says this spreads "ownership of the campaign.''

"You have to look at the cost versus benefit," of letting individuals act quasi-independently, says Teachout, who studied game theory while working toward her law degree at Duke Univeristy. In effect, the benefit of letting supporters say whatever is on their minds outweighs the risks of them making statements that somehow undermine the campaign. It's a lesson also being learned by large corporations such as software giant Microsoft.

For a closer look at blogging issues at Microsoft, check out the article "Are You Ready to Love Blogging?" here.

One strength of the Dean approach is that it involves new people in the political process. Only 51 percent of voters turned out in the 2000 Presidential election, which was decided by a handful of votes. If Dean can energize some portion of the 49 percent who didn't vote last time, his chances are improved.

"My sense is that about 40 percent of the people at meetups are new to the process, and that it's about the same for contributors," says Michael Silberman, who less than a year after graduating from Vermont's Middlebury College is in charge of Dean's meetup effort.

Online donations accounted for about half of the $14.8 million Dean raised in the third quarter. That seems small next to the $200 million expected to flow into the Bush war chest. But Dean looks at it this way: All he needs is to get 2 million individuals to give $100 each and he's on a par with his much-more-moneyed Republican opponent.

As of early November, there have been 200,000 donors to Dean. Only 1,747 have given the maximum contribution of $2,000. The average is $77, with about 25 percent of donors aged 30 or younger.

And it all adds up. When Vice President Dick Cheney held a $2,000 per plate fundraiser in August, Dean put out a call on the blog to top the GOP effort. Cheney brought in $250,000. Dean got more than $500,000 in four days, with donations that averaged $53.

But Dean's Net effort is about getting individuals to give time, not just money. Trippi and Teachout want others to tell the Dean story, not themselves.

"The blog itself is not about getting votes, it's about activating people to get votes," says Rospars. "We are now seeing Web givers sending checks and phone pledges. If you take the trouble to do those things, why wouldn't you also go vote?''

Teachout believes that coordinated volunteer action is the key to the campaign. More than 33,000 people have already pledged at the Dean site to attend their local primary or caucus. More than 1,650 volunteers have signed up to travel to New Hampshire or Iowa in February, to help boost the first official results of the 2004 campaign.

The determined use of Internet tools alone won't get the job done. Even after 10 years of growth, the Internet is used by just 59 percent of American adults, according to the Pew Internet Project, a research organization that has been tracking online usage since 2000.

But online organizing may help bridge the so-called digital divide. About one-third to one-half of meetup attendees don't hear about the events online, coming instead after seeing a poster, article, or item in a community calendar, or being invited by a friend. "From organizing online, we create pods of people who can organize offline," says Silberman. The campaign, for instance, has reached out to blacks and other minority voters in Philadelphia and parts of Georgia, Teachout says.

Other hopefuls for the White House are trying to catch up.

Among the leading Democratic contenders, only Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt don't have a weblog.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, have started writing frequent, first-person dispatches at the Edwards campaign weblog. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is running campaign ads on a handful of popular political blogs. General Wesley Clark, who enjoyed significant support among bloggers as he contemplated entering the race, hired veteran blogger Cameron Barrett and in early November launched a slick new set of blogging and community tools dubbed the Clark Community Network. Excluding the front-runner, the retired general has more Meetup names registered than the other Democratic contenders combined -- but still less than one-third of Dean's count of 140,500 names.

The Bush/Cheney campaign has a tepid blog that doesn't even allow reader comments; in mid-November, supporters of the President held a self-organized meetup of their own. The incumbent's team includes what Teachout would term "risk-averse politicians.''

But the risk in the Marketing of the President 2004 is not in using the Internet. The risk now is not using it effectively.

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.

(Open) Source" page="5"> GOING TO THE (OPEN) SOURCE

The openness of the Dean campaign mirrors, in some ways, the "open source" community that has built much of the software on which the Dean campaign runs.

In this communal means of creating industrial-strength software, a single or core group of developers produce a fundamental piece of programming and then donates the source code to all comers. The other developers then test, tweak, improve and add their contributions to the original program.

This "open" method of developing software produced the Linux operating system that is at the heart of many of the Web's most powerful applications, including the Google search site and the Yahoo! Information portal.

"I wanted to use the collaborative nature of open source, where more people filling holes makes it more stable and effective," says Trippi, 47, a political veteran and former advisor to such firms as Progeny, a company that customizes the Linux operating system. "I wondered how it would work in a political campaign."

Standing one October morning in the lobby of campaign headquarters, a warren of offices and cubicles on the third floor of a nondescript brick office building behind a grocery store in South Burlington, Trippi looks slightly rumpled after a late night of reading weblog comments about a new letter-writing tool developed by the campaign.

Many of the campaign's principles have been developed in books like David Weinberger's "Small Pieces Loosely Joined," which explores the role of individuals connected by the Internet, and "The Cluetrain Manifesto," by Weinberger, Doc Searls, and Christopher Locke, which describes how to think of the way markets work in the online world, as well as "Smart Mobs" by Howard Rheingold. ("Moral Politics" by George Lakoff is cited as another key text for the campaign.)

"We've read all that stuff," says Trippi. "A lot was happening at the grass roots, and we had insight on how to nurture it."

"Cluetrain" describes markets as conversations, in which companies engage customers with an authentic human voice and respond to their needs, rather than pushing one-size-fits-all information out to them in mass broadcasts. "They are as close as I've seen to structuring a political campaign around the Cluetrain themes," says Weinberger, who is working as a consultant to the Dean campaign. "They are quite focused on routing around the broadcast paradigm by enabling supporters to connect with one another."

Dean himself discourages the language of marketing, yet this is marketing of a new sort. "It's not marketing and branding in the sense of demanding complete fidelity to a very succinct message, saying you can't waver on font, color, or verb – 'Coke Is it,'" says Teachout. "We've allowed for local-interest, geographic, ownership of the campaign. That necessarily runs counter to it. We have a flowering of different brands. If this was a branding contest, we'd be losing."

Using tools like weblogs, Meetup, and the "Get Local" application, which lets supporters create their own Dean events – such as house parties or service projects – without any central control, Dean has subverted the traditional branding ethic with great success.

Sometimes, though, the candidate's own message trumps this diffuse branding effort. Rather than sending targeted e-mail to specific interest groups, for example, the campaign sends the same message to everyone, whether it concerns healthcare or foreign policy. If the Internet is being used to recreate New England town meetings all across the country – and to involve all those meetings in the same discussion – the candidate can't say different things to different people.

And even Trippi has to be reminded occasionally that it's a new game afoot. Early in the relationship with Meetup, he wanted to control more information from users than the service wanted to give up.

A key way of carrying on a campaign-wide conversation is the comment area on Blog for America. More than 100,000 comments have appeared on the weblog since June 10, with as many as 2,200 coming in a single day. Gross assumes that about 5 percent of visitors actually read the comments, and maybe 1 percent make comments of their own. Many visitors have never heard the word "blog" before they come, says Gross, yet many commenters end up thinking of themselves as bloggers, too. That's part of the conversation that informs the campaign.

"The tea is in the harbor," wrote one visitor on November 7, the day before Dean made his "revolutionary" declaration against Federal campaign funds; the next day that phrase had become a headline on the blog and a slogan for the campaign.

One October morning, Gross was blogging until 5:00 a.m., reading and writing and linking to interesting items on the Web. But shortly after 10 a.m., Dean's blogger-in-chief was back in the dimly-lit nook he shares with Teachout, Rospars, and a press aide, Garrett Graff. The weblog must be updated several times a day for maximum impact, and there are hundreds of fresh comments to read. It means running flat out. "You can get to this later today, after you sleep," Gross tells one of the programmers seated in the next cubicle. "Forget sleeping," grunts the programmer.

The success of Blog for America has brought technical and cultural challenges that will only grow if Dean makes it past the primaries into the general election, when traffic and comments will explode.

So far, Trippi reads some comments; Gross and Rospars read all of them. But what happens when hundreds of comments on a single post turn into thousands? It's possible to add servers and bandwidth to handle the traffic flow, but how do you make sense of a stream of comments that may take hours to read? If the campaign can't handle the volume of comments as it grows, how will it get meaningful impact from the conversation?

"The short answer is, we don't know yet," says Gross. "We're working on it. We could put our comments into threads, or forums, but comments are delicate -- you don't want to reduce ease of joining conversation, or create hindrances. The more you see of the technology, the more stifled the conversation becomes." Anyone who has followed a discussion thread to a dead-end and then had to back out to the main thread a few times knows what he's talking about. Gross says an interim solution might be a numbering system for comments used at some high-traffic weblogs.

Dean's grassroots supporters have come to take care of some problems for the campaign. Blog for America readers, for instance, police themselves in terms of the tone and content of comments. When "trolls" – blog jargon for hostile commenters looking to make trouble -- come in with negative or provocative remarks, pro-Dean commenters react by pledging donations for each negative comment, which creates a disincentive for the trolls. After this idea was posted on the blog, the number of trolls diminished to almost zero.

Another hazard – overzealous supporters who take objectionable stances or attack other candidates – has not yet emerged as a problem. Nobody knows how supporters will handle that, when it happens. "It will be very interesting to see what happens when something gets said on the weblog that the campaign can't support," says Weinberger. In the meantime, a cadre of watchdogs calling themselves the Dean Defense Forces organize email campaigns to bring what they believe are inaccuracies to the attention of journalists who write them.

But the blogs are about more than giving citizens and supports an opportunity to comment on public policy and Dean's approach to government.

They can actually feed ideas back into the campaign. "If a lot of sites are featuring prescription drugs, or electronic voting, the Governor hears it," says Teachout. She cites the concept of ideas "bubbling up," discussed in the book "Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software" by Steven Johnson.

The whole is smarter than the sum of its parts, says Johnson. Teachout wants to know what the parts are thinking. "When we design tools, we are interested in what structures allow bubbling up – what gives voice to supporters. The way ideas are shared is deliberative, not like polling."

Often the feedback is on practical matters. "Unlike traditional customer service that lets you only hear what's wrong, this lets people give you the detailed but important feedback to make things better," says Gross. When the campaign encouraged supporters to download posters tailored for their own geographic regions (e.g. South Carolinians for Dean), there was an almost instant reaction on the weblog: What about Americans Abroad for Dean? Puerto Ricans for Dean? They were added quickly.

In the end, the weblog gives the candidate, his staff, and all the people in the field a chance to conduct something like a clueful conversation.


It's mid-morning on an October Wednesday, and the new electronic lock on the front door of Dean headquarters is giving people fits. Staffers fumble with the doorknob and look confused when they are told to swipe a card-reader with their IDs. As of this morning, the rule is that the door must be locked at all times. "If you'd come in January, you could have just walked into the strategy meetings," says campaign spokesman Graff. Now Dean has reached a stature where his financial information and campaign plans demand more security.

Things are still far from corporate inside the bustling offices. With 70 people on staff and about 120 volunteers, it's a round-the-clock operation. One volunteer pads by barefoot, and another young woman sports an eyebrow ring. Kasey, the West Highland Terrier owned by Trippi and his wife, Kathy Lash, entertains visitors by rolling over when asked if he would rather die or work for George Bush. The openness of the Internet campaign seems contagious. "If you say something's a secret, it's a race between Trippi and Dean to disclose it," says Britt Blaser, a New York-based consultant who is volunteering for the campaign.

The heightened sense of responsibility is real, though, and it applies to the campaign's technology, too. " We're aware that issues of security and confidentiality are of increasing importance," says Dick Rowe, the director of Dean's Internet and information team, and de facto chief information officer. "We're also aware of the tension that brings with our open source instincts."

Rowe, 70, joined the campaign in May for a $1 yearly salary. The former chief executive of library services firm Faxon/RoweCom, he's also a clinical psychologist and onetime associate dean at Harvard.

As director of the information technology team, Rowe's job is to negotiate contracts for computing services, recruit talent, and stay on budget. Although he's one of the few people on the staff with his own office, Rowe spends little time at his desk. Wearing running shoes and khakis, he moves constantly from conference room to cubicle to fax machine, trying to balance needs of the campaign with limited funds.

"We negotiate every contract and every agreement, because the Governor is tight with money," says Rowe. "He hates to spend it, and that's a very real factor.'' Rowe won't disclose dollar figures, but he says the campaign spends less on its various technology projects than it brings in over the Net. "The Internet is a profit center for us," he says.

What Rowe would like more of is back-up, failsafe systems, to cover "what if" situations. Ideally, he would have enough bandwidth to handle even the demand peaks of this peak-and-trough business, where Internet traffic spikes with fundraising activity at the end of each quarter and during special events. For instance, the campaign raised $800,000 of its $7.4 million in online contributions for the second quarter on the last day in June.

"How much do you spend to cover 1 to 2 percent of the time?" he muses. "We ended up paying a fair amount of money to have the response time to handle the volume."

Now Rowe is considering turning to companies such as Akamai Technologies for help in handling the volume. Akamai helps organizations create duplicate copies of information that are requested often; and find other means to create capacity during peak times.

The infrastructure, almost by the nature of a temporary campaign, is eclectic. Its software and databases are housed at multiple commercial colocation facilities, which are not disclosed for security reasons. These hosting centers use the Linux open source operating system. They run the campaign's Movable Type weblog software, as well as database and transaction software from Convio, a Texas-based vendor of customer relationship software for non-profits. The campaign uses also uses Convio products to manage local fundraisers and house parties, web forms and surveys, and targeted email. Those programs are, for a political campaign, "mission-critical.'' They handle credit card donations and store more than 500,000 e-mails collected by the campaign. The campaign also has two back-up credit card transaction systems in place (one built in-house and one by a consultant) for high traffic periods and as a fail-safe procedure. Convio is used for content management, but the campaign is trying out another content management system built with the Bricolage open source software as a supplement to Convio.

The common theme of all the technology used by Dean, says Rowe, from the weblog to the wiki, an information pooling tool that lets staffers post reports on media coverage of the campaign, is a focus on building community.


Zephyr Teachout has no interest in technology for technology's sake. "We want the simplest, dumbest tools we can get," she says. The idea is to get people working, not to dazzle them, and to get their feedback on what could be done better as quickly as possible.

Take DeanSpace, which was launched in late October. They blog-and-community environment uses the Drupal open source content management system as a platform. It provides all users with simple ways for them to crosslink their sites, simplifying conversations between the opinion generators. Connected through the Really Simple Syndication standard (RSS), the DeanSpace bloggers can subscribe to other blogs and see posts at the other sites immediately in a news-aggregator window. Syndication also shows the Dean campaign whose views are most valued – and active. "If something goes on one site, and it shows up on 50 more, then maybe we put it our site," says Teachout.

Teachout, a native of Norwich, VT, who worked for Dean's 1994 gubernatorial campaign after graduating from Yale, was defending death penalty cases in North Carolina before joining the campaign in early 2003. She seems to take pleasure in going low tech. "There's the Internet, and there's the Web," she says. "The Internet is far more important than the Web." She's talking about things like list serves, unsexy stuff like Yahoo! Groups. "Geeks don't like them, but grandmas do. They're essential," she says.

The idea of posting campaign flyers online, to be adapted for local use and posted in the real world, originated in the mail groups. Now volunteers can print out a two-page flyer detailing Dean's stance on key issues, a list of reasons Dean will win, a one-pager specific to Iowa (that was designed by a Chicago blogger), and so on.

Ideas bubble up from the volunteers. So does talent. Zack Rosen developed the original model for DeanSpace as a volunteer; now he's taking a leave from his studies at the University of Illinois to work as a staffer in Vermont. Another volunteer-generated site aimed at college students, created as Students for Dean, was brought into the campaign organization and rechristened Generation Dean.

When a local group in Iowa came up with a community service plan called DeanCorps, the announcement was inadvertently included in a national press release. People across the country seized on the concept, and it's now one of the most popular local activities. "People love it, they love to get involved in that kind of thing," says Teachout. "It makes them feel politically powerful in an interesting way."

New technologies are still being added. For example, a video-on-the-Web service called DeanTV debuted in late October.

Granted, not every technical frontier has been conquered. How to best use wireless phones is still unexploited. "We have to go at that," muses Rowe. "There are more cell phones than laptops out there, and they are more accessible to some populations. We need to figure out how create a mobile cell phone network."

But Trippi says it's not the technology that matters. It's still people that run campaigns and people who vote. The Internet has just made it easier to connect the two.

In a Nov. 12 email to campaign workers, Trippi put it this way:

"The pundits still don't get it. They see your incredible fundraising numbers - and that's all they understand. But our campaign was not built just by money - it was built by the full participation of you and thousands of others who believe that each of us has the power and the duty to participate in our democracy."