December 24, 2003

Frank Rich on Howard Dean's Internet Campaign

Frank Rich on Howard Dean's internet campaign:

Frank Rich: Napster Runs for President in 04: Even after Saddam Hussein was captured last weekend, all that some people could talk about was Howard Dean. Neither John Kerry nor Joe Lieberman could resist punctuating their cheers for an American victory with sour sideswipes at the front-runner they still cannot fathom (or catch up to). Pundits had a nearly unanimous take on the capture's political fallout: Dr. Dean, the one-issue candidate tethered to Iraq, was toast or, as The Washington Post's Tom Shales memorably put it, "left looking like a monkey whose organ grinder had run away."

I am not a partisan of Dr. Dean or any other Democratic candidate. I don't know what will happen on Election Day 2004. But I do know this: the rise of Howard Dean is not your typical political Cinderella story. The constant comparisons made between him and George McGovern and Barry Goldwater each of whom rode a wave of anger within his party to his doomed nomination are facile. Yes, Dr. Dean's followers are angry about his signature issue, the war. Dr. Dean is marginalized in other ways as well: a heretofore obscure governor from a tiny state best known for its left-wing ice cream and gay civil unions, a flip-flopper on some pivotal issues and something of a hothead. This litany of flaws has been repeated at every juncture of the campaign this far, just as it is now. And yet the guy keeps coming back, surprising those in Washington and his own party who misunderstand the phenomenon and dismiss him.

The elusive piece of this phenomenon is cultural: the Internet. Rather than compare Dr. Dean to McGovern or Goldwater, it may make more sense to recall Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. It was not until F.D.R.'s fireside chats on radio in 1933 that a medium in mass use for years became a political force. J.F.K. did the same for television, not only by vanquishing the camera-challenged Richard Nixon during the 1960 debates but by replacing the Eisenhower White House's prerecorded TV news conferences (which could be cleaned up with editing) with live broadcasts. Until Kennedy proved otherwise, most of Washington's wise men thought, as The New York Times columnist James Reston wrote in 1961, that a spontaneous televised press conference was "the goofiest idea since the Hula Hoop."

Such has been much of the reaction to the Dean campaign's breakthrough use of its chosen medium. In Washington, the Internet is still seen mainly as a high-velocity disseminator of gossip (Drudge) and rabidly partisan sharpshooting by self-publishing excoriators of the left and right. When used by campaigns, the Internet becomes a synonym for "the young," "geeks," "small contributors" and "upper middle class," as if it were an eccentric electronic cousin to direct-mail fund-raising run by the acne-prone members of a suburban high school's computer club. In other words, the political establishment has been blindsided by the Internet's growing sophistication as a political tool and therefore blindsided by the Dean campaign much as the music industry establishment was by file sharing and the major movie studios were by "The Blair Witch Project," the amateurish under-$100,000 movie that turned viral marketing on the Web into a financial mother lode.

The condescending reaction to the Dean insurgency by television's political correspondents can be reminiscent of that hilarious party scene in the movie "Singin' in the Rain," where Hollywood's silent-era elite greets the advent of talkies with dismissive bafflement. "The Internet has yet to mature as a political tool," intoned Carl Cameron of Fox News last summer as he reported that the runner-up group to Dean supporters on the site was witches. "If you want to be a Deaniac," ABC News's Claire Shipman said this fall, "you've got to know the lingo," as she dutifully gave her viewers an uninformed definition of "blogging."

In Washington, the only place in America where HBO's now-canceled "K Street" aroused histrionic debate, TV remains all. No one knew what to make of the mixed message sent by Dr. Dean's performance on "Meet the Press" in June: though the candidate flunked a pop quiz about American troop strength (just as George W. Bush flunked a pop quiz about world leaders in 1999), his Internet site broke its previous Sunday record for contributions by a factor of more than 10. More recently, the dean of capital journalists, David Broder, dyspeptically wrote that "Dean failed to dominate any of the Democratic candidate debates." True, but those few Americans who watched the debates didn't exactly rush to the candidate who did effortlessly dominate most of them, Al Sharpton. (Mr. Sharpton's reward for his performance wasn't poll numbers or contributions but, appropriately enough, a gig as a guest host on "Saturday Night Live.")

"People don't realize what's happened since 2000," said Joe Trippi, the Dean campaign manager, when I spoke to him shortly after Al Gore, the Democrats' would-be technopresident, impulsively crowned Dr. Dean as his heir. "Since 2000, many more millions have bought a book at Amazon and held an auction on e-Bay. John McCain's Internet campaign was amazing three years ago but looks primitive now." The Dean campaign, Mr. Trippi explained, is "not just people e-mailing each other and chatting in chat rooms." His campaign has those and more all served by countless sites, many of them awash in multi-media, that link the personal (photos included) to the political as tightly as they link to each other.

They are efficient: type in a ZIP code and you meet Dean-inclined neighbors. Search tools instantly locate postings on subjects both practical (a book to give as a present to a Dean supporter?) and ideological. The official bloggers update the news and spin it as obsessively as independent bloggers do. To while away an afternoon, go to the left-hand column of the official page and tour the unofficial sites. On one of three Mormon-centric pages, you can find the answer to the question "Can Mormons be Democrats?" (Yes, they can, and yes, they can vote for Howard Dean.) At, volunteers compete at their own expense to outdo each other with slick Dean commercials.

But the big Dean innovation is to empower passionate supporters to leave their computer screens entirely to hunt down unwired supporters as well and to gather together in real time at face-to-face meetings they organize on their own with no help from (or cost to) the campaign hierarchy., the for-profit Web site that the Dean campaign contracted to facilitate these meetings, didn't even exist until last year. (It is not to be confused with the symbiotic but more conventional liberal advocacy and fund-raising site, Its success is part of the same cultural wave as last summer's "flash mob" craze (crowds using the Internet to converge at the same public place at the same time as a prank) and, more substantially, the spike in real rather than virtual social networks, for dating and otherwise, through sites like and From Mr. Trippi's perspective, "The Internet puts back into the campaign what TV took out people."

To say that the competing campaigns don't get it is an understatement. A tough new anti-Dean attack ad has been put up on the campaign's own site, where it's a magnet for hundreds of thousands of dollars in new contributions. The twice-divorced Dennis Kucinich's most effective use of the Web thus far has been to have a public date with the winner of a "Who Wants to Be a First Lady?" Internet contest. Though others have caught up with, only the Wesley Clark campaign is racing to mirror Dr. Dean's in most particulars. The other Democratic Web sites are very 2000, despite all their blogs and other gizmos.

"The term blog is now so ubiquitous everyone has to use it," says the author Steven Johnson, whose prescient 2001 book "Emergence" is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand this culture. On some candidates' sites, he observes, "there is no difference between a blog and a chronological list of press releases." And the presence of a poll on a site hardly constitutes interactivity. The underlying principles of the Dean Internet campaign "are the opposite of a poll," Mr. Johnson says. Much as thousands of connected techies perfected the Linux operating system's code through open collaboration, so Dean online followers collaborate on organizing and perfecting the campaign, their ideas trickling up from the bottom rather than being superimposed from national headquarters. (Or at least their campaign ideas trickle up; policy is still concentrated at the top.) It's almost as if Dr. Dean is "a system running for president," in Mr. Johnson's view, as opposed to a person.

In that sense, the candidate is a perfect fit for his chosen medium. Though his campaign's Internet dependence was initially dictated by necessity when he had little organization and no money, it still serves his no-frills personality even when he's the fund-raising champ. Dr. Dean runs the least personal of campaigns; his wife avoids the stump. That's a strategy befitting an online, not an on-TV, personality. Dr. Dean's irascible polemical tone is made for the Web, too. Jonah Peretti, a new media specialist at Eyebeam, an arts organization in New York, observes that boldness is to the Internet what F.D.R.'s voice was to radio and J.F.K.'s image to television: "A moderate message is not the kind of thing that friends want to e-mail to each other and say, `You gotta take a look at this!' "

Unlike Al Gore, Dr. Dean doesn't aspire to be hip about computers. "The Internet is a tool, not a campaign platform," he has rightly said, and he needn't be a techie any more than pilot his own campaign plane. But if no tool, however powerful, can make anyone president in itself, it can smash opponents hard when it draws a ton of cash. Money talks to the old media and buys its advertising. Dr. Dean's message has already upstaged the official Democratic party and its presumed rulers, the Clintons. Thanks to the Supreme Court's upholding of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, he also holds a strategic advantage over the Democratic National Committee in fund-raising, at least for now.

Should Dr. Dean actually end up running against President Bush next year, an utterly asymmetrical battle will be joined. The Bush-Cheney machine is a centralized hierarchy reflecting its pre-digital C.E.O. ethos (and the political training of Karl Rove); it is accustomed to broadcasting to voters from on high rather than drawing most of its grass-roots power from what bubbles up from insurgents below.

For all sorts of real-world reasons, stretching from Baghdad to Wall Street, Mr. Bush could squish Dr. Dean like a bug next November. But just as anything can happen in politics, anything can happen on the Internet. The music industry thought tough talk, hard-knuckle litigation and lobbying Congress could stop the forces unleashed by Shawn Fanning, the teenager behind Napster. Today the record business is in meltdown, and more Americans use file-sharing software than voted for Mr. Bush in the last presidential election. The luckiest thing that could happen to the Dean campaign is that its opponents remain oblivious to recent digital history and keep focusing on analog analogies to McGovern and Goldwater instead.

Posted by DeLong at December 24, 2003 11:55 AM | TrackBack


Suddenly, the peanut gallery has grown so much larger...

Posted by: john c. halasz on December 24, 2003 09:33 PM


Frank Rich writes:

"Much as thousands of connected techies perfected the Linux operating system's code through open collaboration, so Dean online followers collaborate on organizing and perfecting the campaign, their ideas trickling up from the bottom rather than being superimposed from national headquarters. (Or at least their campaign ideas trickle up; policy is still concentrated at the top.) It's almost as if Dr. Dean is "a system running for president," in Mr. Johnson's view, as opposed to a person."

Hoy! Behold! God wants you out of the way!(*) Direct Democracy is coming!

-- -- --
(*) I got that from this old movie in which a laid-off(spell?) aerospace engineer, in 1970s I think, decides to take the cash box of an evangelist right at the moment when it becomes full with banknotes dropped in by the congregation. When the time comes, he jumps in grabs the box and makes for exit through the believer crowd, firing a shot in the air and yelling: God wants you out of the way!

O my God I forgot the actor's name! Alzehiemer's!

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 25, 2003 01:09 AM


Well, it ain't full fledged Alzehiemer's yet -- that was George Segal, got it with help of Google (remembered Eric Segal first!) and can't get the name of the moive thoguh..

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 25, 2003 08:41 AM


Hunh? The Internet home of geeks and the young?

My guess is that the modal age of Internet users is 60, and if the distribution is bimodal there's another cluster around 38 year-old women.

Posted by: David Lloyd-Jones on December 25, 2003 12:11 PM


Is this true or your are guessing for the fun of it? I mean I have been thinking I was probably the oldest one on this blog and by far so; meaning something like every body here was about ten years younger than I or younger; and if I'm wrong, I'll cut it out with Alzeihmer's bid.

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 25, 2003 10:22 PM


What is interesting about Rich's article is really that he's surprised by the fact that the Dean campaign is really about the little people, the little people getting involved, the little people with a voice, the little people donating money. I've seen this in other articles. The internet is important, but what's key is that this isn't the elites dictating down. The mass media only understands the big people making the decisions, the big people having a voice, and the big people donating the big money. The media elites don't understand this (they didn't understand it about the religious right, either).

Posted by: Barry on December 26, 2003 06:02 AM


Bulent Sayin: I just turned 62. bet I am older than you.

What I think is really different about Dean that the Washington establishment and other political analysts do not get is that he is really running as an old fashion polulist.

Posted by: spencer on December 26, 2003 07:49 AM


Spencer, I am not taking you on your bet; cause you do beat me to it. And I feel I owe you an explanation, if not an apology: You see my ex began using the "A" word on me ever since it became much talked about down here, (maybe she used the word instead of the word "idiot", although she didn't use to call me that before...) and so it got stuck! I guess I liked it!? But no more on this blog.


Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 26, 2003 10:48 AM


I know Rich mentioned this only in passing, but the music industry is most definitely not "in a tailspin", at least financially; and to the extent that business isn't doing well, file-sharing has very little to do with it. At the apex of Napster's popularity, CD sales increased. Most of the people I know who used to file-share have cut down dramatically; Kazaa and Gnutella are less convenient, the novelty's worn off, and the lawsuits have made them nervous. The music industry has sown its own troubles. As far as affecting business goes, file-sharing is probably no more than a nuisance, and it's irresponsible for journalists to parrot the music industry's line on this issue.

That said, I hope that Dean's harnessing of the Internet proves to be much more than a nuisance.

Posted by: Armature on December 26, 2003 01:04 PM


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