The template for successful presidential campaigns was established by James (its the economy, stupid) Carville and Karl (Boy Genius) Rove. Stay relentlessly on message, control the agenda. But Howard Dean thinks there is another way.
The Dean campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has enthusiastically surrendered control to the Internet. The success of the insurgent Dean, who now leads the polls in the two early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, means that other aspirant candidates are following his lead.
Nowhere is Deans surrender more obvious than on the official Dean campaign weblog, grandly named Blog for America. Blog for America is the creation of Mathew Gross, who in March flew to Deans headquarters in Burlington, Vermont from his home in Utah with the idea of creating a candidate blog. With no appointment, he wandered into campaign manager Joe Trippis office and explained his idea. Trippi told Gross that if he could get a blog up and running within 24 hours, he had a job.
Blog for America now has 35,000 readers and several thousand comments each day. Wherever you are you can participate in the campaign, says Gross. Supporters feel as if they are in the room in Burlington HQ, and in a way they are. One of the most successful Dean slogans people-powered Howard came straight from a comment on the blog.
Our belief was you have to let control go, says Gross. We truly are a grassroots campaign and if you build a command structure on top you kill it. You have to have trust in the American people and so far its worked.
One of the fears for the lively debate in Deans comments is that it may be ruined by abusive or obscene posters, known as trolls. So the Dean supporters have started a troll fund: when a troll posts a comment, supporters thank him for reminding them to send $10 to the Dean campaign. They dont usually post again, Gross says.
Disagreements dont count as troll posts. We dont delete if a Kerry supporter comes over and argues in our threads, Gross says. Thats fine. Thats democracy. The open approach is also reflected in the Blog for America blogroll a list of other blogs to read. There are 80-odd political weblogs listed, across the ideological spectrum. And there are 200 or so unofficial Dean weblogs, ranging from Mormons for Dean to Dykes for Dean.
One of the advantages of blogs for candidates is that they seem to overcome cynicism from potential supporters. Blogs are held to a higher standard in terms of authenticity, explains Gross. When Howard Dean blogs, he blogs [Dean posts occasionally on the blog]. Most people know when they get a fundraising letter from Bill Clinton, that Clinton didnt write it. That clearly doesnt work on a blog.
Most of the candidates now have weblogs in one form or another. When General Wesley Clark announced his candidacy in mid-September, his staff proudly announced that a weblog would be launched quickly. On September 27 Generally Speaking launched, run by veteran blogger Cameron Barrett.
Barrett says that the blog has already proved its value. When Clark spoke to the Democratic National Committee last week, Barrett compiled the comments as they rolled in. When the general finished his speech, Barrett handed the speechwriters the comments immediately.
The determination of Clark to gain credibility in the blogging world was best demonstrated by the lengthy interview he gave at the end of September to Washington-based political blogger Joshua Marshall, which ran on his Talking Points Memo blog. Clark gave Marshall the time and access that he hasnt yet granted to The New York Times or The Washington Post.
The campaign blogs face enormous challenges as the election cycle develops. When we win the nomination, says a confident Gross, I could see us having 1 million reads a day. It presents a massive technical and editorial challenge. But if the US is discussing the election on your site, thats an advantage.
While the Democratic candidates seem to have all the web savvy, part of the energy is a result of the 2000 election debacle. The Bush campaign pumped 30,000 emails into Florida at 4 pm on election day and we didnt, recalls Eric Folley, director of Internet operations at the Democratic National Committee. 500 votes determined the presidency.
The only way to defeat George Bush in 2004 is for everyone to become involved and to get engaged, says Gross. Our entire web presence is moving out towards that. When you get to the point where youre fighting Karl Rove and $200 million of advertising, thats what youre going to need.
This is the complete version of an article published in The Guardian, 9 October 2003