Howard Dean was for months touted as the first presidential candidate to harness the power of the Internet. Polls and expectations climbed as the media ran story after story about how the Dean campaign was revolutionizing the way campaigns were run and — most importantly — financed. Yet Dean was ditched by voters in Iowa and New Hampshire in favor of John Kerry, the very epitome of the anointed Democratic establishment whose weathered, lurch—like appearance underscored the image of a technologically—illiterate Neanderthal . Why did Dean go the same way as the tech stocks?
The jettisoning by Dean of the much—hyped web guru Joe Trippi marked the end of the Dean Internet bubble. Trippi was the mastermind behind the Dean campaign's internet strategy. In a typical article late last year entitled 'Joe Trippi and the Dean Internet Revolution' (November, 2003 The New Republic , available only to subscribers) the admiring author explained that the power of the Dean campaign was derived from online forums. Trippi realized that people form close communities through constant communication in these forums. Eventually those people feel like they have a real stake in the community, and will in turn contribute time and money in order to support common goals. The forums also made planning events and coordinating large numbers of volunteers much easier. This seemed like a real plan for campaign success.
Unfortunately for Trippi, the Dean campaign learned the hard way what Wall Street learned three years ago: that while the Internet is flashy, exciting and interesting, ultimately you need more than an idea to succeed. Just as companies need a solid business foundation that produces real earnings in order to maintain stock prices, you need a solid candidate with a respectable foundation to produce votes. Polls began to slip in December after Saddam was captured, as this deflated Dean's main campaign issue, which was that the war in Iraq was unjustified. Then Dean's disappointing third—place finish in Iowa was compounded by the now—infamous 'scream,' and voters questioned just how stable a man this was. Everything fell apart from there.
The Internet can be a very powerful tool for a presidential candidate, but it cannot be the centerpiece. Ultimately people vote for the candidate, not his method of campaigning. By placing so much emphasis on the Internet, the Dean campaign confused means with substance. While Dean exploited the Internet to amass a war chest that towered over those of his rivals, he squandered it on a massive TV assault that didn't connect with voters. While the ads didn't improve poll numbers, the Internet didn't deliver miracles either.
Despite common perception, online forums can cause serious problems for political campaigns. Users on the Dean website interacted so frequently and exclusively with one another that they convinced themselves — in a huge and tragic case of groupthink — that their ideas were faultless and that failure was impossible. When the Dean forum—goers tried to attract other voters, they appeared self—righteous and out of touch with the average American.
Grass—roots campaigning requires connecting on a personal level with people who think differently than you do. By providing a comfortable environment for people who have trouble with face—to—face social interaction, Dean supporters became much better at preaching to the choir than to the masses. Needless to say, this did not translate into victory at the polls.
The nature of online forums also pushes the campaign atmosphere to extremes. In good times, the forum reinforces the feeling that victory is inevitable. In bad times, everything points to failure. When I logged onto a Dean forum following the first loss in Iowa, the atmosphere was funereal. Yet historically a poor finish in Iowa is in no way a knockout punch: Clinton received single digits in Iowa in 1992. In a grueling struggle, people require inspiring leadership with a face, not a vast community of anonymous online users. Dean was certainly the first candidate to make extensive use of the internet, but he didn't understand its limitations and, therefore, its proper role in a presidential campaign.
Joe Trippi was replaced by a true Washington insider, Roy Neel. In doing so, the Dean organization signaled that it is converting into a more conventional campaign along the lines of rivals Kerry, Edwards and Clark. It is probably too late to turn things around for Dean, but candidates in the future will have a better understanding of how to harness the Internet. Of course, one of those candidates is George Bush.
The author graduated from West Point in 2002, and was commissioned as an officer in the Army's Military Intelligence Branch. After being seriously wounded in Baghdad in May of 2003, he was evacuated back to the United States and is currently undergoing physical therapy as part of his recovery. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq.