Fast Company

Joe Trippi's Killer App

Howard Dean's campaign manager has used the Internet to turn an obscure ex-governor into a real presidential contender. It's anything but politics as usual. Will it work?

It was the middle of baseball season when the underdogs of the Howard Dean presidential campaign first stepped up to the plate against the pin-striped Bush juggernaut. The contest? A kind of Home Run Derby for dollars. The venue? For the Bush team, a $2,000-a-plate fund-raising event guest-starring Dick Cheney held at a CEO's house in South Carolina. For the Deanies, a virtual collection plate on the campaign's Internet home page urging supporters to pony up against the "special-interest contributors" meeting in Columbia.

The question? Whether Howard Dean, who in early 2003 was a little-known ex-governor from a rural New England state, could match the well-oiled, high-performance political fund-raising machine that had already built a $35 million war chest by the end of the second quarter for a candidate likely to run unopposed.

When the clock had run out, the vice president had cleared nearly $300,000 from 150 businessmen and women who had come for lunch that July day. The former Vermont governor, however, had attracted $508,640 -- nearly 70% more. It was, by any measure, a stunning performance, all the more so given that 9,621 supporters had responded to the call, donating an average of $50 apiece.

"Thank you for making this challenge a huge success, beyond what the timid among us in Burlington thought we could do (yes, even me)," campaign manager Joe Trippi wrote at 1:30 that morning on "Blog for America," the campaign's Weblog.

Humble though he may have been in the wee hours of the morning, by the next day, Trippi, a man invariably described as "rumpled," is back in his office, looking weary but sounding like someone whose team is suddenly a contender. Camera crews are getting antsy in the lobby, but Trippi wants to savor his victory. "Howard Dean is running a campaign that empowers people to make a difference," he says. "If you and the rest of America come to believe that we can actually be a government of the people again, that we don't need 33 lobbyists for every member of Congress, then we'll kick their ass."

Pretty cocky attitude for a campaign that started out less than six months earlier with seven people and $157,000 in the bank. But with a second-quarter fund-raising blitz that raised a record $7.6 million, mostly from small donations, Dean was suddenly in the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates -- third only to Senators John Kerry and John Edwards in funds raised. What's more, by running the country's first presidential campaign organized primarily through the Web, Dean had managed to attract more than 302,000 supporters to a grassroots movement that was growing exponentially -- much of it with little supervision from campaign headquarters in Vermont. He was simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek, was surging in the polls, and was being spoken of as a real prospect for the Democratic nomination.

Desperate as the Democrats are to get back in the game, party regulars find Dean's surge alarming. They invoke the painful memory of the McGovern debacle, and warn darkly that the party will lose the election if it lists toward an angry "far left" stance. The centrist Democratic Leadership Council recently ran a story in its magazine asking, "Could [Howard Dean's campaign] be the next dotcom bust?"

It's an interesting question, since Dean's campaign has all the hallmarks of a startup circa 1997. It's getting big fast. It's monetizing eyeballs. By the time we went to press, Dean had more than $10 million in his campaign coffers, raised largely from small donations. His campaign had first-mover advantage in the Internet space, as the first presidential campaign known to have a blog and the first to post the organizational group Meetup on its site, and it was the winner -- by a 44% plurality -- of a straw poll conducted by the online group MoveOn.org.

If Howard Dean Inc. is a dotcom, then Trippi, 47, is its COO. Growing up in Los Angeles, Trippi says he was a "hopeless early adopter" and technophile. He en-rolled at San Jose State University, planning to study aerospace engineering. Although politics intervened, Trippi has still managed to sample the Silicon Valley thing, consulting for a couple of tech companies and serving on the board of a startup.

So while he's frustrated when people focus on the "phoney baloney dotcom thing," he readily acknowledges the parallels. "Every presidential campaign is a startup," he says, "and every one becomes, essentially, one of the fastest- growing corporations in America." But, he says, those who think that this is simply the next Pets.com are missing the point: "We're actually trying to get people to participate in democracy again. And we're using the Internet to get the message out faster and earlier and asking supporters to help spread the word. If you want to call that a dotcom, go ahead. We simply call it a bunch of Americans."

As in any political race, the Dean campaign began with a few people around a table, calculating the odds of success. For Dean, the first question was financial: how to raise the funds to compete against a popular sitting president with a bankroll bigger than a Powerball jackpot.

Trippi says they began with two conscious decisions: an ironclad pact to run the first four miles of the race -- till the end of the second quarter on June 30 -- at 100-yard-dash pace, "even if it killed us." And to build a campaign organization designed to beat Bush. Not Kerry, not Edwards. Bush. And that meant doing the math.

They had virtually no chance of matching the $200 million Bush is expected to raise through the usual route -- shaking down big donors for $1,000 checks. But what if they could persuade a few million people to give $100 each? "There's only one medium where, theoretically, 2 million Americans could get up off their chairs one day and decide, 'Damn it! I'm going to do it!'" Trippi says. "The Internet."

But building the organization along a decentralized, grassroots model was not simply a savvy way to tap donors far from traditional money sources, Trippi hastens to add. It was also a way to attract enough supporters so that the Democratic Party would have to take notice.

The campaign's strategy is one that nimble companies have been using for years: give staffers on the ground the authority to make decisions tailored to their markets without having to check back constantly with the home office. But it's a radical, and some would say risky, way to organize a campaign, where control is usually fanatically guarded. "Most campaigns have real top-down controls," says Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, at George Washington University. "They're apoplectic about people not speaking for the campaign, afraid that somebody will say something that will reflect badly on the candidate."

But letting go of that control has benefits as well. By unleashing thousands of people to spread the word to friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens, a campaign could grow faster and more viscerally than through any other medium. It is, in short, precisely the kind of task the Internet was designed for, says David Weinberger, a mar-keting consultant and tech writer who recently signed on as an Internet adviser to the Dean campaign. "The old topology was that each point connected to a controlling center that was either selling you soap or selling you a candidate," he says. "With the Internet, the center is still broadcasting to the ends, but the ends are now connected to one another. Politics has always been about power, and the campaign is willing to be truly democratic in a way that is really different."

The staffers at Dean headquarters look as if they'd stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue: good-looking twentysomethings in cargo shorts and flip-flops, with the occasional nose ring thrown in as a nod to diversity. Right now, a charming brunette in baggy khakis is wrestling with a gnarly problem. A caller wants to join a Dean group in Philadelphia but -- yikes! -- he isn't wired. "Craig," she whispers urgently to a guy with spiky blond hair and a tie-dyed T-shirt, "What do we do with people who don't have Internet?"

For all the rhetoric over Dean's Internet strategy, that is a big question: Can this message leap the digital divide? Mindful that the past election turned on confused seniors in Florida, Trippi's troops are attacking the problem in their customary style -- electronically. On "Dean Meetup Day," held on the first Wednesday night in August, 33,000 supporters met in res-taurants and cafés across the globe to ponder that very issue.

Meetup Inc., the Web site that allows people with common interests (Chihua-huas, Elvis, Harry Potter, for example) to find and meet each other locally, is the secret sauce in Trippi's campaign recipe. The membership list for the Meetup group "Dean in 2004" now claims 87,985 members in 562 cities, from Scottsbluff, Nebraska, to Allahabad, India. In its July meeting, the group wrote roughly 30,000 personal letters to Iowa residents, urging them to support Dean.

In August, they did the same for New Hampshire, and they brainstormed ideas for carrying the message to elders ("Wear Dean buttons to bingo night" a supporter in San Luis Obispo, California, suggested). It's what techies would call the "network effect," writ large. And while Trippi was the first presidential campaign manager to recognize its potential, it has now taken on a life of its own as members enlist other members and plan activities in their communities, far from campaign headquarters. "We built a hammer," says Scott Heiferman, CEO of the scrupulously nonpartisan Meetup, "and they built a house with it."

Indeed, many of the campaign's freshest ideas have bubbled up through the Net, says Dean blogmaster Mathew Gross. Making use of Meetup events, such as locally organized leafleting campaigns, or downloadable bumper stickers, T-shirt graphics, and other campaign gear -- even slogans like "People-powered Howard" -- are from supporters in the hinterlands.

"It's like Linux," says Trippi. "The more people collaborate, the more likely we'll build a better thing."

Still, despite the innovation and enthusiasm, Dean faces plenty of hazards on the road ahead. Has he peaked too soon? Will all this online ferment translate into votes? Or do the centrists of the Democratic Party have it right, that a Dean candidacy could be the means of handing Bush a 49-state victory in 2004? And what happens when Karl Rove's "opposition research" minions begin scouring Vermont's Green Mountains?

From Trippi's little corner in the Northeast Kingdom, all is still possible. "If you think there's a hunger out there for a candidate who stands for all the things we've lusted for all this time, then it's jujitsu," he says. "If Karl Rove is Darth Vader, we're Luke Skywalker. Who wouldn't want to have that fight?"

Sidebar: Trippi's {TIPS} for Building a Better Campaign -- or Company

  • Design the organization to be nimble from the start. A decentralized workforce can respond to local challenges more quickly if it doesn't have to wait for clearance from higher up the food chain. Be willing to let go of total control.
  • Find ways to let supporters -- or customers -- talk to each other. Make it easy to connect, then step out of the conversation.
  • Encourage ways for ideas to bubble up from the field. Understand that the more brainpower that is applied to a problem, the better the solution. Unleash the power of the people to be creative.
  • Recognize that it's not about the technology. True, you need a basic level of technical sophistication to make things work, but the technology should be in service to the idea, not the other way around.

Linda Tischler (ltischler@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.

Add New Comment

0 Comments