February 07, 2004
"Howard Dean is not a soap bar"

Dave Winer’s latest DaveNet essay contains some real insight into what people can learn from the Dean experience:

[W]hat happened is that in a virtual sense, the Internet was looking for a candidate, and Howard Dean fit the bill. He was bloggable. He was interesting. And get this, he was interesting if you were for the war, as well as if you were against it.

The man is interesting, like him or not, and that’s a rarity in US politics where candidates are as exciting as toothpaste or underarm deodorant, because that’s exactly how they want us to view them, as products, not people. Enter Howard Dean, person. Bloggable to the nth degree. But did Howard Dean know what a blog was? No. Does he know what one is today? No! Did he ever have a blog? He didn’t. (I don’t mean to ask, as some people misunderstand, did he write his own weblog. I mean did his campaign have a weblog.)

He did raise a lot of money on the Internet, and that’s interesting, for sure, and he taught us so much, and if he had gone all the way, I believe he would have survived the onslaught of CNN, ABC and NBC, who were his real competitors, not the other candidates for the Democratic nomination. Read that sentence again, please. That’s the core premise of this piece, and the point that all the analysis so far has missed. His challenge wasn’t to get the most votes, because that would inevitably follow, once he won the battle with the television networks, a battle which he failed to even show up for…

The Dean campaign taught us that you can’t use the Internet to launch into a successful television campaign to win primaries. By raising money to run ads you play into the gatekeepers, who for obvious financial reasons, have a lot at stake in the money continuing to flow through their bank accounts. At some point he wouldn’t need them. If Dean didn’t get it, they did. So they proved that in 2004 at least, they still get a veto on who runs for President.

This is a fresh take — and, I think, a good one. The Trippi strategy flowed from an analysis of the political world that went like this: to be a competitive Presidential candidate, you need to be able to compete in the TV “air war”. Competing in that requires huge amounts of money. Raising huge amounts of money usually means toadying up to corporate interests. Toadying up to corporate interests means that unconventional candidates like Dean get rejected (they lose the “money primary”) before they ever have the chance to compete for a vote.

What Trippi said was, let’s see if we can come up with a different way to raise those sums of money required to get into the air war — a way that didn’t require the toadying up, and therefore wouldn’t close the door on people like Dean. And by all accounts, he was successful — nobody can argue that Dean won the “money primary”, given his now-legendary ability to fundraise from his energized base.

But what Dave is saying is that Trippi’s analysis was only half correct. Yes, you need the money, but if the money just ends up getting plowed into TV ads, then your uncoventional candidate walks right into the same traps he avoided with such alacrity earlier. It’s hard to see how anyone can argue with that, after seeing the results of Trippi’s $35 million gamble in Iowa and New Hampshire — blowing the vast majority of that money on ads, and yet getting disappointing results in both states.

In other words, the money primary isn’t the only place that the Powers That Be can shut the door on your candidate — it’s just the easiest, since it’s the least public. But as we’ve seen this year, knifing him in full view of everyone isn’t something those Powers are going to shy away from. And you’re not going to keep them from doing it by going conventional midway through your campaign, either, trying to make nice by switching to a more conventional strategy. All you’re doing then is serving yourself up on a silver platter.

Dave says, quite correctly, that the real challenge now will be to find the candidate who is willing to go all the way — who is willing to look at Dean’s experience not as a discouraging warning to stay away from challenging convention, but as an encouraging indicator that this can be done. We’ll get one eventually, of course, but for a little while I think it’s going to be fashionable for people to run away from anything that might associate themselves with anything Dean-like, so it might take a little longer than Dave thinks. Of course, I’ve been wrong before, so there’s always hope :-)

Posted by Jason Lefkowitz at February 07, 2004
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