Joe Trippi is former campaign manager for Howard Dean. He is generally credited with conceptualizing the decentralized Internet-based structure that helped the governor of Vermont build early momentum in the bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
In his SXSW Interactive session, following an introduction by Zack Exley, Trippi talked about what went right in Dean’s campaign — and, to a lesser extent, what went wrong. What follows is a partial transcript of his remarks.
I want to talk a little about politics for the first 5-10 minutes and then talk about the Dean campaign. There’s a real disconnect between the political press, which doesn’t know a lot about the Internet, and there’s a disconnect between people who know about the Internet but don’t really think about politics. Both parties since 1976 have spent a lot of time trying to come up with rules to clamp down on insurgent candidates. The day Jimmy Carter left office as president, the parties began a commission to come up with ways to make sure that never happened again.
When Gary Hart almost wrestled away the nomination from Mondale, it was after the commission. They set the threshold saying that if you didn’t 20% of the votes, you couldn’t get in. After 1984, they went back in. They kept rigging the rules so no insurgent could emerge. They also structured a calendar so a front runner with a lot of money who got the first two states would be the nominee. The Republicans figured this out a long time ago.
What you have coming into the2004 election is two parties who have specifically and purposely constructed a process so a party insider would get nominated. That meant that an outsider like Howard Dean had to get big enough, strong enough, and bad enough — and spend whatever it takes — to get those first two states. There’s no other way an insurgent could get it to work.
Look at the guys who chose not to take that strategy, the Clarks and the Liebermans, anyone who decided not to participate in that part of the system that was rigged, the momentum doesn’t matter. It just wipes you out. That’s what the Dean campaign was up against.
The other thing that is real important is that we have a rusted, corrupted, busted broadcast politics that has ill served the populace. Whether it was the Nixon Checkers speech or the Nixon-Kennedy debate, that was when we knew that television had changed politics forever. What we didn’t know was how bad it could be. The media’s becoming more homogeneous in terms of the message it’s sending the people.
People got taken out of the process. When your retail politics becomes how to get as many people to write you $2,000 so you can get on television, you need millions and millions of dollars to survive. The other thing that happened was that 33 lobbyists sprung up for every member of congress. There’s a reason we don’t have good healthcare in this country.
What happens over those 40 years is another amazing thing. People used to believe there was a common good in this country beyond selfish interest. With the loss of community came the feeling that I can’t make a difference. My $25 check can’t change a damn thing because of this big money buying the TV and the lobbyists. There wasn’t any way to get an insurgent who would change things.
The one thing that let us have our democracy back was the Internet. All the media are one-way media. It’s top down and perpetuates a system that’s not working for the American people. The Internet is the single most powerful tool put into the hands of the average American. Americans are just learning that they can make a difference and change the country if they take action in common cause together. That’s helping us build communities and make real bottom-up change — and not just in politics.
Napster is bottom-up politics. The Net won’t change everything, but the people who use the Net will have impact across the board. Any company, the Wal-Marts of the world, will learn that the Net can affect them. People can get the word out about how companies do business.
The Dean campaign and MoveOn are just the equivalent of the Nixon-Kennedy debate. People will be empowered by the technology. So let’s look at what happened in the Dean campaign.
In January 2003 we had seven staff members and 432 known supporters nationwide. That campaign would grow to 650,000 Americans, raise more money than any Democrat in history, including President Clinton. That was not done with $2,000 checks, it was done with checks averaging less than $100. That’s absolutely amazing.
How did we get there? First of all, blogs. The increasingly homogeneous mass media had no debate about weapons of mass debate before the war, much less the Patriot act. That debate was happening in the blogosphere. The media had their embedded reporters, but you still got one report. Trent Lott got into trouble because of stories on the Web. Same with paper voting machines. There’s very little reporting on that in the press, but there is in the Net.
I’ve been on blogs for a long time, long before I joiend the Dean campaign. A year before the Dean campaign, I was reading one day, and someone quoted something I had said in the newspaper about Dean. I got into a conversation with him on his blog, and 3-4 months later, he had a post about something called Meetup.com. There were something like 400 people signed up for Dean. I went to Meetup and really watched it. By February, there were 2,607. We immediately embraced it and put the link up on the home page. We grew to about 190,000 people who would meet on the first Wednesday of the month offline. The Internet can get people online to find a way to meet each other offline and do something in their local community that took time and energy.
Every day there’s another American waking up saying I can make a difference. Broadcast politics is wiped out. Our email in May and June was very simple. We kept sending emails to people saying we know you think your $25 doesn’t matter, and you’re right. But if we all give $25, we change America. Later, we raised more money than any other candidate. No campaign in history has done that. This year, there are 2 million Americans in this country who would borrow $200 to get rid of George Bush and send it in. Whether it’s MoveOn, Kerry, Change for America, someone is going to do this. If 2 million Americans ever did that, American politics would be changed forever.
There is only one medium in the world that allows that to happen. It’s not television. It’s not the LA Times, CNN, or NPR. The Dean campaign and MoveOn are about empowering the American people. The television set is power, but it’s the wrong kind. It’s not interactive. The radio doesn’t empower people. Print does, but there’s no way to mobilize collective action. Then there’s the Internet.
What worked and didn’t work? We tried everything. Everything under the sun. There wasn’t anything we didnt try. We grew into the biggest political SMS network in the nation. But 5,000 people? So what. It’s just not there yet. The offline tools, things like Meetup and the get local tools we had on our Web site like what MoveOn pioneered, were amazing.
People say you’ve got to let go. We did let go. A lot. That’s what you need to do. Whats wrong with people in their local community getting together to do what they want to do? Is there something wrong with that? That’s what democracy and self-government is about. We’ve got 50% of the people not voting, not participating.
Almost every really cool idea we had came from blogs. I can give you two examples. The first one is that we put 50 posters up on the site — Iowans for Dean, New Hampshire for Dean. We blogged about it and said, hey, download it, print it, and put it in your window. Three minutes after we put the posters up, the first comment up was, hey, you screwed up, Puerto Rico votes for the Democratic nominee. Cut, paste, Puerto Rico. Then someone said, hey, you don’t have Americans Abroad for Dean. Cut, paste, Americans Abroad. That happened in 10 minutes. This is a campaign where we were literally in real time. It was an open source campaign. Our team doesn’t have as many brains as 600,000 people. But we have a whole bunch of other brainpower and thinkers.
The other one is more symbolic. On the Sleepless Summer Tour, we had the goal of raising $1 million before Dean took the stage. We arrived at the end late, we were short, and the press were hungry. I got a call from the Webmaster saying we want to aim for $1 million, but if we make it, we want the governor to get on stage, hold up a red bat, and say, “You did it.” It’s midnight, we’re at New York Deli, and I turn to a staffer and say, “Go get a red bat.” That wasn’t Joe Trippi, it was someone on our blog. And the people reading the blog knew that the suggestion had only been made 35 minutes ago. We didn’t give up control. They made us better than we were.
This wasn’t a dotcom crash, this was a dotcom miracle. Because we are in the Nixon-Kennedy debate stage of this, you’re not going to tear down a system that’s as rusted and corroded as this over 13 months. It just ain’t going to happen. But for people in Washington to think that they’re immune to bottom-up change? Have they not read the Constitution?
There’s one thing I want to knock down, though, is the whole rap about how we spent our money. Most of that comes from people who don’t understand what we were doing. In their world, you throw a big, gala dinner. You blow $350,000, and you collect a bunch of $2,000 checks. You spend $350,000 to raise $1 million and net $650,000.
The Dean campaign said you know what? We’re going to spend $100,000 on Austin television and take on Bush and his stance on the war. And on our Web site we asked people to help us keep doing that. On the Web site, $1 million came in. In this world, you spend $100,000 on television with a message that’s rebroadcast by other media, and you raise $1 million. That’s $900,000 net, and in their world, it’s wasteful, early media spending.
It doesn’t matter. Kill Joe Trippi. The genie’s out of the bottle. I dont matter. People like you matter. And when the tools are in people’s hands, they’re going to do something.