Maintaining Optimism in the Face of Reality. Occasional observations on the state of the world, society, business and politics. Usually anchored by facts, always augmented by opinion.

What We Can Really Learn from the Dean Campaign  | e-mail post

I was listening to MPR while driving over the noon hour today and they were rebroadcasting a talk Joe Trippi gave at Ruminator Books in St Paul a few weeks back [audio]. Trippi was there promoting his new book: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. You can read more from Joe on his weblog. If the name is unfamiliar to you, Joe Trippi was Howard Dean's campaign manager and was responsible for orchestrating the Dean campaign's high effective use of the internet to mobilize widespread grassroots support behind a little-known candidate from Vermont.

I really enjoyed Trippi's talk. As one would presume, he is quite an idealist. I think he is very optimistic in his time projections about the effective use of the internet as a broad tool for democratic empowerment, particularly of things like corporate governance. At the same time, I appreciate that idealism, and it took me back, very directly to the days before I was a hopeful cynic. (You can read more at the end of this post about how Joe Trippi was closely related to, although in no way responsible, for my becoming cynical many years ago.)

But the thing that was really quite inspiring to me was that it reminded me that the important and interesting thing about the Dean campaign was not really its spectacular self-destruction from the top, not Dean's ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but the fact that Dean was able to go from relative underdog/outsider to the presumptive nominee in the months leading up to the start of the primary season.

To paraphrase Trippi's metaphor, people shouldn't be surprised the Bad News Bears from Burlington Vermont lost to the Boston Red Sox, but what is amazing is that they were in the lead up to the top of the ninth when the game should have been 54-0 against them in the first inning.

Of course, Joe Trippi's point, and I can't help but agree, is that the key enabler for this was the internet, and the ability to leverage the internet as a efficient organizing platform for political action in terms of cost, labor and time. Notice that I said that the internet was a key enabler, not a reason. To paraphrase the NRA: the internet doesn't contribute money, people do; the internet doesn't show up to a rally, people do. It takes people like Joe Trippi who are smart and experienced in the political milieu and also have an understanding of how a technology like the internet can be applied to really leverage the platform. Obviously other campaigns have already learned some things from the Dean campaign examples.

While Trippi is fairly unique today for his combination of political and technical acumen and experience, I imagine what he did for Dean will become the norm. As time marches forward, simple demographic changes will mean that more and more politically seasoned professionals will have grown up with these technologies and will more naturally understand how to leverage the internet for their candidates. It is the same cycle that we see take place in businesses. There are always people of every age that adopt and assimilate new technology well, but widespread adoption and deep use of technologies seem to be generational.

The implications of this fact for almost any politically-minded individual, or any engaged citizen in a democracy, are significant. If the internet were as mainstream in 1999 as it was in 2003, how would John McCain have fared in the primary season? Would McCain be running for reelection now, rather than George Bush? Would Al Gore have been the Democratic nominee, or would Bill Bradley have grabbed the brass ring? Would a candidate like Nader have been able to maneuver inside the Democratic party, rather outside of it, ultimately resulting in co-opting his supporters behind the ultimate Democratic ticket? Just like the question of how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, the world will never know. Beyond the two-party political system, think what this organizing tool could mean to third party candidates, not necessarily at the national level at first, but at the local and state levels.

Now, Dean's ultimate demise showed that there is obviously a chasm to be bridged: the one between popular support (as reflected in the polls, fundraising, etc) and securing the party's nomination. While the internet has been demonstrated to be a great organizing tool, when it comes to an actual vote, whether its at a caucus, primary or general election, physical, not virtual, attendance is required. Call it the ground game, voter turnout or just GOTV, the fact is that established party organs are good at it because doing it really well seems to require people today. Thus, those candidates that toe the party line, that move up within the established party organization, that climb the greasy pole, in Disraeli's words, have the advantage of an established organization rather than an ad hoc one. Not that the party organ can work on behalf of particular candidates during the primary season, but the candidates that attract the mass of the party faithful get at least a subset of team that has worked together in the past.

The established organization knows how to coordinate vans and drivers and solid door-to-door and phone canvassing to get people into their polling places. While the leaders of an ad hoc organization know how to do this as well, the challenge is that the true organizational knowledge is missing. If you ever been involved in planning the first happening of a large recurring event (a large annual fundraising event, the church swap meet or even large parties) you know that the third time went a lot more smoothly than the first time, even if all the same players are involved. As Kipling wrote in reference to polo, "they were a team of crack players instead of a crack team; and that made all the difference in the world." There is just no substitute for the reflexive coordination and institutional knowledge and experience of a well-established organization.

This is why I imagine that in the next election cycle, campaigns which attract people involved at the grassroots level with the Dean campaign in this election cycle will have an advantage. Those people will have been through it all once before, they will be that much better at mobilizing people locally, not just virtually, but in the real world.

If and when online voting becomes prevalent (and I will write later about my ambivalence on this issue), the advantage of a party organization may diminish. If a citizen can vote from their web-enabled cable box, their desk, PDA or internet terminal at the local coffee shop, you won't need to transport many people to polling places. You don't even really need to persuade somebody to make time to vote; there's no drive, no parking, no lines; just click and vote. In this world (and I think it might be a scary one), an ad hoc organization can mobilize voters with spam e-mail and a clickthrough link to the polls. Smart organizations could even hide their messages with subject lines like "naughty schoolgirls" and implying to otherwise apathetic voters that they might get free porn in exchange for voting.

The exciting thing for me is the prospect of a centrist Republican (i.e. one who doesn't pander to the evangelical movement) employing Dean-style tactics to deliver a strong campaign through the primary season in 2008, ultimately culminating in securing the nomination. Whether the general election in 2008 were won or lost by that moderate Republican, the process of reclaiming the center alone would be worthwhile.

Of course, if we could just throw in instant runoff voting, then politics could get really interesting. Maybe even interesting enough to make the broad mass of the American people really engaged in their democracy, thoughtfully contemplate and debate the issues, and become all around socially-aware citizens. Yikes! Did I write that? And I called Trippi an idealist?

Joe Trippi and the Making of a Hopeful Cynic
While many learned of Joe through his rise to national celebrity in reinventing presidential campaign politics and turning Howard Dean into a national political force (even though Dean couldn't hold up his half of the bargain), I've been aware of Joe Trippi since I was 17. I first met him back in 1987, when I was working for the ill-fated Gary Hart campaign. It was a great time, and I had the opportunity to meet, get to know, and learn from, some very bright minds in the Democratic party, such as Trippi, the late Paul Tully, and Teresa Vilmain. When the Iowa campaign was shuttered, Teresa Vilmain was running the Iowa office for Hart; today she's the head election strategist for the DNC. A quotation from her in a recent MSN article shows that at least some things haven't changed in almost 20 years:
Some politicos-in-training, shunning dress-for-success attire, showed up in shorts and sandals, earning them a warning from Vilmain that to be taken seriously, they must dress professionally.

"You are not kids, you are serious organizers," she told them.
Not only does this illustrate Vilmain's professionalism, but also the way in which she has respect for what young people can do, especially in a campaign.

One of the truly great aspects of working on a political campaign as a younger person is that you are treated like you really do matter. I found it highly ironic that I was treated with more respect by the likes of Vilmain, Tully or even Hart as a senior in high school working as a (barely) paid volunteer coordinator than I was by my supervisor as a cashier or grocery sacker, or some other high school job. Although I professionally stayed as far away from politics as may be possible, I think this was without question an invaluable experience.

In case there was any question about the catalyst (or at list a galvanizing moment) for my cynicism, imagine being a politically committed high school senior having worked several months on the Hart campaign, and planning to take a year off after high school to work full-time at helping a progressive (compared to Reagan), yet moderately hawkish, Democrat win the White House, having an incredible shot at making it happen, and then seeing it all come to a crashing halt in May because of any of the following:
Instead, Democrats sent Michael Dukakis into battle, and we all know how the first presidential battle between a Bush and a Bostonian turned out.

So, that's how you make an idealist cynical.

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