The Back Page

HOWARD DEAN, WEBHEAD

His internet-driven campaign for the U.S. presidency will change politics forever

PAUL WELLS August 18 2003
The Back Page

HOWARD DEAN, WEBHEAD

His internet-driven campaign for the U.S. presidency will change politics forever

PAUL WELLS August 18 2003

HOWARD DEAN, WEBHEAD

The Back Page

PAUL WELLS

His internet-driven campaign for the U.S. presidency will change politics forever

IT’S THE FIRST Wednesday night of the month, which means it’s time for another Howard Dean campaign rally. Perhaps 150 people are packed into Nectar’s, a bar and grill on Main Street in Burlington, Vermont.

It looks like an ordinary campaign rally. Appearances are deceiving.

For one thing, Howard Dean, who spent the ’90s as Vermont’s staid Democratic governor, isn’t even here. The crowd came out to say nice things about him behind his back.

Nor is Dean at the other Dean gathering in another saloon down the street, or at a third Dean meeting elsewhere in town. Nor is he attending Dean gatherings taking place more or less simultaneously in Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, Fargo, N.D., and nearly 480 other cities.

It is fully five months before primary season begins. Yet in the dead of summer, tens of thousands of people have gathered across America to help Howard Dean get elected president. They met on the Internet. Welcome to the new politics.

For most of the last two years, Dean has been a long-shot candidate for what is, in itself, a long-shot proposition: being the Democrat who tries to pick off the popular wartime Republican president, George W. Bush. There are important senators from big states who are more than happy to parrot the party line while they wait to lose to Bush. The party really didn’t need this runty governor of a little grassy state most Americans consider, frankly, a bit nutty.

Then, early this year, two things started to happen. Dean got angry—eye-bulging, lip-pursing mad—at Bush’s management of the economy and his assorted wars, but also at the mealy-mouthed response of the other Democrats. Might as well stand up to Bush, he said. “I’m from the democratic wing of the Democratic party,” he announced at a winter party meeting, and people began to pay attention.

The other thing is a little weirder. There’s a Web site called meetup.com where you can

declare the existence of your local book club or Dungeons & Dragons league. There you find out whether other people share the same interests and you organize regular meetups.

In Burlington, I met a 23-year-old Dean campaign worker named Michael Silberman who has followed the growth of a phenomenon. In February, about 1,000 people logged onto meetup.com to talk about their fascination with this guy Dean. In March, the Dean campaign assigned Sil-

berman to be their ambassador to the wired legions, who by now numbered 4,500. By July, when it was revealed that Dean had raised more money in the second quarter than any other Democrat, it was past 55,000.

And between Sunday and Thursday of last week, with Dean’s pugnacious mug on the cover of the two biggest American newsweeklies, the number of Dean supporters on meetup.com went from 70,000 to 80,000. No other candidate has nearly that much on-line support. The few who try have simply embarrassed themselves. There are fewer than 10,000 John Kerry supporters

on meetup. The number refuses to grow.

When tens of thousands of people get excited about a candidate, it does more than encourage a campaign. It becomes a motor for action. The official Dean Web site, dean foramerica.com, has become the most powerful political money-raising tool in the short history of the Net. And a volunteer army this big offers more than cash. It offers enthusiasm that can be focused and targeted.

On yet another site, deandefense.org, the faithful are informed of the latest unflattering press coverage. (Dean opposed the Iraq war. He wants to repeal the Bush tax cuts to pay for health care. He signed a Vermont law permitting same-sex civil unions. Skeptics call him an unelectable leftie.) So you log on, you read about somebody badmouthing Dean, and you send the misguided scribe a corrective e-mail (“Be polite,” the Dean legions are told, “but make your point”). Repeat. Hundreds of times a day.

There’s more. The first delegates to the 2004 nominating convention will be elected in January in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Last month people at every Dean meetup hand-wrote a letter about their man and, using addresses gathered by the Dean camp, mailed the letter to an undecided, registered Democratic voter in Iowa. This month, the Dean camp hopes 40,000 letters have been sent to the wavering Democrats of New Hampshire.

I don’t have a clue how Dean’s campaign will end. But his ability to rally money, supporters, defenders and word-of-mouth is already changing politics.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in part because Kennedy was more convincing on the new medium of television. From now on there will be an “Internet primary” before the others. Early momentum—not decisive, but awfully handy—will go to candidates who reject blandness and excite crowds. Also, I think, to candidates like Dean, who have appealing flaws and imperfections. It’s actually an advantage if the guy looks like he could use your help.

The stars of the Internet primary, in short, will be the opposite of the blow-dried, riskaverse zombies who rise beyond their ability when television is the only medium that picks winners. The forces lifting Dean will ignore politicians who rely on blandness to win. Sounds like good news to me. lifl

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