Howard Dean may not win the US presidency – or even the Democratic nomination. But by harnessing the power of technology and the internet, he has transformed the nature of political campaigning in the US (and in other developed countries) and pioneered new ways to re-engage a disenchanted, disenfranchised public in the democratic process. Lance Knobel reports

The first votes in the US 2004 electoral cycle were only cast on January 19 in the Iowa state caucuses. But whether or not he wins the nomination – and whether or not he prevails in the November presidential election – it is already clear that Howard Dean has transformed the nature of political campaigns.

By working with the grain of network technologies, Dean has galvanized hundreds of thousands of people who had previously shunned electoral politics.

At one level the remarkable success of the insurgent Dean campaign can be attributed to innovative use of a variety of internet tools. By marshalling so-called social software and exploiting the communicative potential of weblogs (websites with frequent logged entries) Dean and his team have moved from obscure also-ran to presumptive nominee. Dean has raised $25 million to lead the Democratic pack in fund raising, largely from small donations (average $77) from the hundreds of thousands of supporters registered on the internet.

These tools and techniques, however, are readily available to Dean’s competitors and to Bush’s chief political adviser Karl Rove and the re-election campaign. What is novel about Dean is the entirely new philosophy his campaign has adopted, which meshes so well with the ethos and strengths of the internet.

There are enduring lessons for US political campaigns, but also for policymakers grappling with declining interest in electoral politics in most of the world’s advanced democracies – and conceivably even for marketers wondering how to excite a jaded public about their products.

Since at least the 1968 election of Richard Nixon, the key to successful campaigning in the United States has been strict, centralized control. Think of the sign in Bill Clinton’s Little Rock headquarters: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

No variation on the centrally imposed message could be allowed. Unscripted moments are rare and to be avoided. Even in the much-ballyhooed presidential debates in the United States, direct interchange is scrupulously eliminated by the rules, and the candidates are intensively coached on acceptable answers to potential questions.

Although the command-and-control campaign may have been most developed in the United States, it has spread. Both of Tony Blair’s successful election campaigns in the United Kingdom have been characterized by everyone in the party staying firmly on-message. Dean has largely abandoned command and control. Campaign manager Joe Trippi worked in Silicon Valley start-ups during an interlude away from his career in political campaigns.

He is comfortable with the uncertainty inherent in using the internet. And crucially, Trippi understood from the outset that the only way to take on the power of Bush’s incumbency was an out-of-control, viral internet contagion that would create a thriving community of two million active workers and donors.

Take a look at Blog for America (www.blogforamerica.com), the official Dean weblog. The main entries are written by Dean staffers. But to focus on those is to miss the point. The real content is in the comments to the entries. Even the most innocuous point will generate 200 comments; many entries provoke 500 or even 1,000 comments.

“Wherever you are you can participate in the campaign,” says Matt Gross, Dean’s chief blogger. “Supporters feel as if they are in the room in Burlington HQ, and in a way they are.”

He adds: “Our belief was you have to let control go. 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 it’s worked.”

That trust is reflected in the other main part of Blog for America – the lengthy list of other Dean weblogs. These range from the expected (Georgia for Dean) to the odd (Deadheads for Dean), to the unaffiliated but interesting on the right, left and everywhere in between. There is no control of this linked content and control would be absolutely impossible.

The release of central control also extends to real events. From the start, the Dean campaign has used Meetup.com to organise local events. By mid-December, 157,000 people had signed up for the January series of Dean Meetups (by contrast, the Wesley Clark campaign, which also uses Meetup.com, had 50,000 participants).

As The New York Times has reported, when people call campaign headquarters and ask permission to undertake an activity for Dean, they are told they don’t need permission. On the internet, there is no effective centre. Data is distributed wherever there is a web server. As internet theorists Doc Searls and David Weinberger put it in a joint essay: “The Net is a world of ends. You’re at one end, and everybody and everything else are at the other end.” The Dean campaign has embraced this notion and hundreds of thousands of previously unengaged people have responded.

It’s not just that technology enables communication. You can, in theory, send an email to the Bush-Cheney re-election effort. But there is no sense that anyone real will look at what is sent to its anonymous email address.

No comments are allowed on the website, and there certainly is no linking to any unapproved content. None of the items on the weblog are signed – in contrast with Dean bloggers Matt Gross, Joe Rospars and Zephyr Teachout, who have become minor celebrities through their signed postings.

Bill Clinton’s political guru, Dick Morris, has noted that the structures of the right-wing populace in the United States may be even better suited to internet mobilisation than the left. He cites regular churchgoers who vote Republican at a ratio of 2 to 1.

The Republicans will use technology, and effectively. After all, at 4pm on election day in 2000 the Bush campaign pumped 30,000 emails out to their supporters in Florida. The Gore campaign didn’t and lost Florida by 500 votes.

But mobilizing these forces in the same, liberating fashion as Dean necessitates a loss of control that would run contrary to the history of Karl Rove and his deceased mentor, Lee Atwater.

Other Democratic candidates are encountering the same problems. All of the candidates have started their own weblogs, mimicking many of the features of Blog for America. But, with the partial exception of Clark, they have not managed to tap into the same vein of energy and enthusiasm as Dean. The Kerry weblog, for example, manages about one-quarter of the level of comments as Dean’s.

The tools used by the Dean campaign have succeeded in building a community. That goes a large part of the way towards explaining the devotion and enthusiasm seen through the Dean weblog.

Campaign manager Trippi reckons the internet has enabled a return to an older style of politics that depends on community. He told journalist Chris Lydon that the internet campaign “gets back to something we had before television, back to neighbours knocking on doors”.

Everett Ehrlich, undersecretary of commerce for economic affairs in the Clinton administration, has examined the Dean campaign through the prism of Nobel Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase’s theories.

He also concludes that Dean is doing something dramatically different and that Dean’s nascent community could displace the traditional structures of the Democratic party. “To an economist, the ‘trick’ of the internet is that it drives the cost of information down to virtually zero,” he writes. “So according to Coase’s theory, smaller information-gathering costs mean smaller organizations. And that’s why the internet has made it easier for small folks, whether small firms or dark-horse candidates such as Howard Dean, to take on the big ones.”

He goes on: “For all Dean’s talk about wanting to represent the truly ‘Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,’ the paradox is that he is a third-party candidate using modern technology to achieve a takeover of the Democratic Party.

“Other candidates – Joseph Lieberman, John Kerry, John Edwards – are competing to take control of the party’s fundraising, organizational and media assets. But Dean is not interested in taking control of those depreciating assets. He is creating his own party, his own lists, his own money, his own organization.”

The series of primary caucuses and elections in the coming months will provide the first serious test of Dean’s approach. As Zephyr Teachout, the campaign’s director of internet organizing, explains, online activity only matters to the extent that it produces a result offline – meetings, posters, ultimately votes.

If Dean does get the nomination, his novel approach will face unprecedented tests. Now, the weblog team reads all the comments on the site, and campaign manager Trippi always reads some. But as the nominee, the number of readers of the weblog could jump from the 40,000 to 50,000 a day to as many as one million a day. If the number of people who comment continues to run at 1%, the volume would easily overwhelm the staff and the two-way conversation would disappear.

So far, however, the nimbleness of the Dean campaign has dealt with the problems of success.

For example, when the weblog comments were being ruined by so-called troll posts (trolls are commenters looking to be abusive and cause trouble), one clever commenter suggested that supporters make a donation to Dean every time a troll appeared. Abusive posts diminished to nearly zero as would-be trolls realized their comments would only spur donations to Dean.

At the 2000 US presidential election, voter turnout was only 51%. A significant percentage of those attending Dean Meetups is new to electoral politics. Some estimates suggest that it could be as high as 40%.

One in four of the donors to Dean’s campaign is under 30 – crucial young voters who seemed disenchanted with all politicians. The Bush re-election campaign may well have $170 million plus the power of incumbency behind their candidate. Dean, should he get the nomination, will need to galvanize many of the previously uninterested and uncommitted voters to have a chance.

American political campaigns are very different from most other democratic systems. But some of Dean’s new rules for engagement could be – and should be – adopted elsewhere. In parallel with the rise of Dean, some of the groundwork is already being laid.

The election campaign that won Roh Moo-hyun the presidency in South Korea last year was in some ways a precursor to Dean’s campaign. More than 70% of homes in South Korea have broadband connections to the internet – the highest percentage in the world.

Roh – like Dean, an insurgent candidate from outside establishment political circles – mobilized Korea’s young voters primarily through the internet.

Up to 500,000 visitors a day logged on to Roh’s website during the campaign. More than 7,000 voters a day sent emails with policy ideas to the Roh campaign . In a country where nearly half the electorate is under 40, Roh’s approach proved particularly potent, catching his conventional rivals unprepared.

In Britain, a growing number of MPs are active webloggers (although the rules of the House of Commons prevent them from blogging from the chamber itself). Tom Watson on the Labour benches and Richard Allan for the Liberal Democrats have been the pioneers. For both of them, the weblog is a tool of political engagement, not just votes. “If I get half a dozen additional votes at the next election because of my blog, I’ll be surprised,” Watson says. “It’s not a campaign tool. It’s a political ideas tool.”

Further afield, Iranian vice-president Mohammad Ali Abtahi writes a weblog in Farsi. He declares: “Let me be myself – Mohammad Ali Abtahi – in this website; regardless of my official and governmental status.” The Dean campaign is only the start of the revolution.

Lance Knobel
Lance Knobel is a London-based writer who can be found at www.davosnewbies.com