Dean campaign empowers his supporters via Internet

Control: Web-logs and links give Howard Dean's supporters more freedom to campaign how, where and when they want.

November 09, 2003|By Kenneth S. Baer | Kenneth S. Baer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Howard Dean allowed his supporters to make one of the most important decisions he might confront during the nominating campaign: whether or not he would accept federal campaign matching funds.

The fact that a presidential candidate publicly discussed this decision before making it yesterday is shocking in and of itself - and the fact that he submitted himself to a vote is unprecedented.

While this "money poll" was dismissed (perhaps rightfully so) as a stunt to give political cover to a decision to withdraw from the public financing system - a decision that Dean and his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, clearly wanted to make - such a dismissal is only blinding people from what is really going on in Burlington, Vt.

In any case, he announced yesterday that he would not accept public financing.

Simply, Howard Dean is running the most radical campaign in a generation. The former Vermont governor's political team is reinventing how campaigns are run, rejecting a decade-long trend toward near-Orwellian campaign centralization (which has reached its apotheosis in the Bush administration) and trading that control for a more energized group of supporters.

To understand how radical the Dean campaign is, one needs to appreciate how influential the success of the Clinton campaign in 1992 has been on the practice of politics.

The Clinton campaign was run in a way that took the lessons of Michael Dukakis' defeat in 1988 very seriously, especially how then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was able to overcome a 17-point deficit by seizing on two silver bullets found (ironically, by other Democrats) in Dukakis' record: the Pledge of Allegiance and Willie Horton.

Not wanting to suffer a similar fate, and admiring how successful the Bush team was, the Clinton campaign - as both Democratic and Republican campaigns have done since - put a premium on research. Facts became the offensive and defensive weapons of choice. Scores of young operatives now have cut their teeth poring over pages of the Congressional Record, digging in statehouse archives and tracking their opponents' every move. What's more, they are acutely aware that the other side is doing the same thing to them, adding a layer of caution to every step.

With this degree of scrutiny comes an obsession with message discipline. Like Clinton's "It's the economy, stupid," campaigns try to boil their pitch down to its essence, and then push it unadulterated through every press release, television ad and campaign event with a zealotry bordering on the cult-like.

As a result of this desire to be "on-message," campaigns are run from the top down. The campaign's senior staff spends hours making sure that the allied groups, surrogates and satellite offices are reading from the same script. The Clinton team took this a step further by setting up a "war room" in its Little Rock, Ark., headquarters to quickly respond to incoming charges and to coordinate the daily dose of the campaign's message. In this world, dissent from the plan is a distraction not to be tolerated, and the war room is the enforcer.

Howard Dean has a message, and undoubtedly has a staff of researchers combing through Sen. John Kerry's voting record and every word ever published about retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark. But the Dean campaign has rejected this top-down model of rigid message discipline and replaced it with a model that uses the Internet to empower its supporters with a huge degree of freedom.

The Dean campaign's blog (as the Internet diary Web-log has come to be known) gives a platform for anyone to write anything they want for anyone else to read. Its official Web site links to more than 200 other sites supporting his candidacy - from Geeks for Dean to Baltimore for Dean and the Dean Defense Forces. Through these sites and the blog postings, the campaign effectively has no control over a huge amount of content on its Web site. Attempting message discipline in this environment is futile.

Dean supporters are also allowed to print their own posters and campaign where they want, when they want. The Dean campaign has posted online its field training manual for the world to see. In this, Dean might not have an "organization" all over the country, but he has generated a campaign in 50 states.

Finally, the Dean campaign has revolutionized political fund raising by making it almost entirely transparent. Where other campaigns play a sophisticated game of expectations-setting and breaking with the press, the Dean operation "brings out the bat" - a baseball bat graphic on its Web site that changes colors as money is raised online and progress is measured in real time. For Beltway insiders, the bat has become the most compelling political entertainment since Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing.

Taken together, the Dean campaign has sacrificed a substantial measure of message discipline and day-to-day control in exchange for a healthy dose of popular empowerment and the energy it brings.

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