Requiem for a Dream

By Edward Cone Print this article Print

Internet politics, release 1.0, still has some bugs in it. The beta version powered Howard Dean to an early lead in the Democratic primary race. Yet his campaign failed to win a single state. What went wrong?

Internet politics, release 1.0, still has some bugs in it.

The beta version powered Howard Dean to an early lead in the Democratic primary race. Yet his campaign failed to win a single state. What went wrong? And how much of the problem was due to his use of the Internet?

Joe Trippi, Dean's former campaign manager, calls the campaign "a dot-com miracle," and credits the Internet—especially weblogs and organizational tools such as Meetup.com—with a major role in taking the obscure former governor of a small state to the top of the fundraising tallies and pre-primary polls. But the technology also led to problems of communication, organization and coordination that leaders of future campaigns—political or otherwise—will have to address.

The Internet didn't cause Dean's demise. Ultimately, the product wasn't saleable. Voters decided that other candidates spoke more directly to their concerns, or would be more electable in November.

Trippi, speaking at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference in February, blamed the national media and negative campaigning by Richard Gephardt. At the same time, he identified several areas where the online campaign came up short.

One problem was integrating the grassroots volunteer organization created online with more-traditional groups such as local political parties. Sometimes, it was hard to tell who was in charge. A marketer might see similar conflicts selling the same product on a Web site and, at the same time, through a store.

The Dean campaign had to learn on the fly about such internal divisions. "We thought Meetup people should be [among the] delegates, but of course you've got the county Democratic chair who thinks, 'Hey, I ought to be the Dean delegate,'" said Trippi. "A lot of the fighting that actually happened in the campaign between the establishment and the Net [grass]roots was over stuff like that.''

Meanwhile, openness—which defined Dean's campaign—caused its share of problems.

Volunteers accustomed to hearing about key decisions were disappointed when the campaign stopped announcing in advance when its commercials would run. "How do you maintain that openness and free spirit and directness…particularly with people who haven't been involved in politics before and might not really understand why you're trying to keep it a secret from John Kerry?," said Trippi, who was replaced as manager and quit the campaign after late-January losses in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Rival campaigns were also free to replicate Dean's tools, and even use his mailing lists. Trippi never overcame his fear of opponents' dirty tricks, both online (for example, phony e-mails that made his campaign look bad) and in the physical world, where operatives might sign up for volunteer work and then sabotage it.

As Dean became the clear front-runner, Trippi found it hard to convince the grassroots organization that the real fight was just beginning. "We were having a hard time conveying to these guys, 'Hey, we could be in real trouble here,'" he said. "Part of the reason is that now the press reads the blog. This is the transparency problem … that no other campaign has to really face."

This was his most startling observation: that the campaign's formidable communications platform failed, just when the campaign's freefall began, and it was needed most. "We couldn't figure out a way to communicate what was happening to us (after the Al Gore endorsement) in a way that didn't sound desperate," Trippi said.

The campaign learned the hard way that a new technology can be overused. Supporters started getting too much e-mail as the national, local and volunteer organizations grew. Trippi called it "a spam problem," and the same issues face businesses. A bank customer with multiple accounts, for example, may be deluged with e-mail and thus miss a critical notice.

Indeed, if the Dean campaign is an object lesson at all, it's that deploying an information system in and of itself solves nothing. It's how the system's used that matters. And that communication by computer is fraught. The receivers may not be able to hear what you're really trying to say.

That said, current Democratic front-runner John Kerry is adapting many of Dean's technological tactics and Republican operatives are promising a massive e-mail effort, among other initiatives, to support George Bush as November approaches.

Internet politics 1.5 is already under way.

This article was originally published on 2004-02-19
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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