How did Dean surge to the front?

The Burlington Free Press, Sunday, November 02, 2003

By Sam Hemingway
Free Press Staff Writer

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and four advisers huddled in his room at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill hotel in Washington, D.C.

It was Feb. 21.  In 20 minutes, Dean had to go downstairs and appear before 370 delegates attending the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting, the last of four party presidential prospects to speak that day.

Dean had flown into the nation's capital from California the night before and had had only two hours' sleep. He had no prepared speech, and there was uncertainty among his staff over what he ought to say.

Dean knew he could go after President Bush, as his predecessors to the podium had done; but another, more risky strategy tugged at him. Even if it was a meeting of party bigwigs, why not go into that ballroom and attack his own party's leadership for failing to stand up to Bush on the looming Iraq invasion, his tax cut and other issues?

Good question. At that moment, Dean was barely a blip on the nation's political radar, an ex-governor from a tiny state with nothing to lose. Dean started jotting his thoughts on the back of an envelope.

The result was a 12-minute speech that would transform the face of the 2004 Democratic presidential race. For anyone who wonders how Dean turned himself from dark horse to frontrunner for the party's nomination in eight short months, this is where it started.

"What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral war on Iraq," he said in the speech's opening line.

The audience applauded.  Dean began ticking off other examples of where he said the party had knuckled under to Bush -- on the tax cut, health care, education reform.

"What I want to know is why our folks are voting for the president's No Child Left Behind bill that leaves every child behind, every teacher behind, every school board behind, and every property taxpayer behind," he yelled.

The audience, many of them now standing, cheered louder.  To be sure, some of the cheers were coming from college students smartly recruited by the Dean campaign to make noise for him.  But many of the DNC delegates were just as excited.

"I'm Howard Dean and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," he said.

The room erupted in deafening applause.

Back at Dean's Burlington headquarters, campaign staffer Courtney O'Donnell's cell phone rang.  One of Dean's advisers had called from the hotel ballroom ecstatic about what was happening.  O'Donnell held the phone up.  The staff gathered around, listening to Dean, listening to the cheers.

"You could hear the roar of the crowd," she said.  "You could just feel the energy from the crowd.  The response was so strong it gave you goosebumps."

Campaigns, if they are successful, are made up of turning-point moments like this.  For Dean, the Feb. 21 speech was initial proof that he could hold his own against his better-known rivals.

It bonded him with the party's liberal activists, a group profoundly opposed to the Iraq war and angry with Democrats who had gone along with Bush on it.  It also earned him increased media attention, larger crowds on the campaign trail and improved standings in the polls.

It took more than one breakthrough speech to put Dean at the head of the field for the 2004 Democratic nomination.  Below are the stories of four other watershed moments in the campaign, times when the campaign's Internet, fund-raising and organizational skills helped move Dean past his rivals.

March 5

Shortly after 7 p.m., the Essex Lounge, a restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side, was so packed that a line of people hoping to get inside was wrapped half-way around the block.

Dean, who had just arrived, was stunned.  His campaign hadn't organized this event.  Instead, the crowd of 500 was there because they had tapped into a Meetup site on the Internet that told them he would be there.

"I guess people pay attention to the Net around here," he joked as he made his way inside.

Brian Schaitkin, a Columbia University junior who was at the Essex that night, said the feeling in the bar was electric.

"There was the feeling that 'Hey, we are capable of building a movement that can successfully compete with traditional campaign tactics on any level,'" Schaitkin said.  He said that he's since spotted many of those who were at the Essex at other Dean events around New York City.

The Essex event was the first visible evidence of the earthquake event of Campaign 2004: the emergence of the Internet as a powerful new political organizing tool.

The funny thing is, Dean didn't find Meetup;  Meetup found Dean.

The bond began to take shape in early January.  Meetup, a half-year-old Internet entity dedicated to arranging meetings for groups of Internet users with similar interests, decided to see if its formula could be applied to presidential politics.

Meetup set up gatherings for three candidates it deemed most inclined to have Internet interest:  Dean and Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John Edwards, D-N.C.

Even though he was the least known of the three, Dean drew the most interest -- 400 registrants nationwide compared to 150 each of Kerry and Edwards.  That earned the attention of Joe Trippi, an avid Internet follower who was serving as a consultant to Dean at the time.

"I knew we wanted to use the Internet in our campaign somehow," Trippi said, "but I didn't know about Meetup.  This wasn't Joe Trippi being a genius.  All I saw was that more people signed up for Howard than the other candidates combined."

Meetup executives saw what was happening, too.  "We called the campaign because we figured they'd want to know," said Myles Weissleder, a Meetup spokesman, "and Joe said, 'That's incredible, because we were about to call you.'"

Trippi, named Dean's campaign manager the day of the Essex Lounge event, soon reached an agreement that provided Meetup a monthly fee in return for the chance to gather the e-mail addresses of all those drawn to the campaign via Meetup.

It has been an astoundingly successful marriage.  Meetup has enjoyed a huge boost in visibility thanks to Dean.  As for Dean, the brigade of 2,500 Meetup backers in March has expanded, at latest count, to an army of 130,000 followers.  Bottom line: Fully half of the $25 million Dean has raised to date has come via the Internet.

"Dean, right from the start, was aggressive about Meetup," said Weissleder.  "He helped put us on the map, and I'd say we helped put him on the map, too."

June 10

Matthew Gross, 31, sat before his borrowed IBM laptop computer and began tapping on his keyboard.

"Well, we're finally up on moveable type," said the words forming on his computer screen.  "It's been a long time coming, as many of you know." Despite the campaign's Internet savvy, it had lacked the technology until now to make this moment possible.

It was 8:47 p.m.  by the time he had finished his first "thread" for the Dean revamped campaign's "blog." Thread refers to an electronic letter to which Internet readers can respond in real time, creating a dialogue among users.  Blog is short for Weblog, the portion of a Web site where all threads reside.

Gross pushed a button and the thread headed out for a spin on the information superhighway.  Gross, once again working late at Dean's campaign headquarters, leaned back.

Five months earlier, Dean himself wouldn't have had a clue what these Internet terms meant.  Now, a whole portion of his Web site was being devoted to them.

It didn't take long before the returns began pouring in.

"Congratulations on the blog!" wrote one respondent that night.  "Hopefully you will continue your blog through eight years in the White House.  Al Gore may have invented the Internet, but you, my friend, have mastered it."

The first thread drew 12 responses.  By June 20, 1,750 people had responded to threads posted by Gross and other campaign representatives.  By month's end, the number had grown to 5,950.

Today, the figure has surpassed 160,000.  That doesn't include the 40,000 per day who read but don't participate in the Web site's conversation that never ends.  It's the main reason the campaign has staff on duty at its South Burlington headquarters 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Everything is discussed on the blog, from Dean's debate performances to news from the campaign trail to advice for the paid staff about how to further his candidacy.  It is here where the baseball bat icon, the "hit a homerun for Howard" fund-raising gimmick that has raised almost $7 million for the campaign, first made its mark.

"It's been incredible, unbelievable," Gross said of the blog's success.  "And yet, in a way, it's to be expected."

No one is a bigger fan of the blog's success than Trippi, a veteran of underfunded, underdog campaigns.  With Meetup and then with the blog, Trippi realized Dean had the means to make an end run around the traditional barriers to success for longshot candidates: money and lack of name recognition.

"I knew I wanted to do something with the Internet," Trippi said.  "Television is all one-way communication.  There was always this thing in me saying, 'How are we going to use media to have a two-way conversation.'"

Gross' blog work has led to a series of spinoff ventures.  From the Dean Web site, people can download Dean posters, receive instructions on how to organize a Dean event or raise money, contact fellow volunteers around the country for advice on how to perform some task on Dean's behalf.

June 29

Howard Dean was appalled. 

He had decided to check his campaign Web site before retiring for the night, and to his horror, it was telling him that the campaign had raised $2.8 million in eight days and had collected $6 million since March 1.

Dean was sure someone had hacked the Web site and called Trippi to warn him.

To Dean's absolute shock and delight, Trippi told him the numbers were accurate.  Trippi told Dean the campaign had decided to ask supporters to see if they could raise the total to $6.5 million by midnight June 30.

When the campaign finally closed the book on the second-quarter fund-raising period, the number had surged far past $6.5 million to $7.6 million.  In the last 24 hours, a staggering $800,000 was raised.  Even Trippi was surprised.

"When we said last week during the governor's announcement that 'You have the power,' we had no idea just how much power our supporters had," Trippi told a reporter.

By raising more money than any of his rivals, Dean had erased the impression he couldn't compete with them, even beating them to the punch by running the first television ads of the campaign.

The ripple effect of the second-quarter fund-raising achievement continued all summer.  In July, his national poll numbers abruptly tripled.  In August, he made the cover of Newsweek and Time magazines -- in the same week.  In the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire, a new title was being attached to his name: frontrunner.  Dean was in the big leagues.

Looking back, three factors probably caused financial floodwaters to break Dean's way: a high-powered formal announcement speech in Burlington on June 23, a first place showing in the June 22-26 Internet-based electronic primary and, of all things, a lackluster performance on NBC's "Meet the Press" show June 22.

According to Trippi, online donations to the campaign skyrocketed in the hours after the show aired.  His explanation: People thought host Tim Russert was unfair to Dean and voted their disapproval with their dollars.

Aug. 26

The chartered Boeing 737 touched down on time at the steamy corporate airport in Flushing, N.Y.

Dean slipped into a limousine and headed off for yet another fund-raiser.  The 60 weary members of the media who had traveled on the Dean campaign's 6,000-mile Sleepless Summer Tour climbed aboard the two air-conditioned buses that would take them to New York City's Bryant Park, the final event on the trip.

On the tarmac under the nose of the jet, Trippi huddled with the group of campaign staffers who had gone along on the cross-country speaking trip.

"I know there's going to be tough times ahead," he told the group.  "I wasn't going to tell you this, what this trip means to me.  But I want you to hold on to this moment, because no matter what happens I want you to know what you are going through is historic.  Don't ever forget it."

With that, Trippi's eyes filled with tears.  So did those of most of the staff, who joined arms in what amounted to a huge group hug.

Of all the things the Dean campaign cooked up with to advance his candidacy, the Sleepless Summer Tour was the biggest gamble.  Its success depended on drawing crowds in the days leading up to Labor Day weekend, fully six months before primary season and 15 months before the 2004 election.

It did that, and more.  In Seattle, the crowd was so large -- more than 8,000 -- and boisterous that the perennially self-assured Dean confided afterward that he'd felt nervous speaking to them.  That night, the crowd in Manhattan's Bryant Park topped 10,000.

"That was the thing that told everybody we weren't a one-hit wonder,"  Trippi said of the Sleepless Summer Tour.  "You tell me, what candidate in either party could have done that? Those crowds were presidential crowds, the kind you get in a general election campaign."

The tour also had the effect of sustaining the momentum Dean won with his second-quarter fund-raising performance.  During the tour, the blog set a goal of gathering $1 million and brought out the bat to inspire donations.  The figure was achieved as Dean took the stage in New York, a real live baseball bat in hand.

The success of the tour, said Trippi, set in motion the campaign's next stunt -- its plan to break President Clinton's Democratic quarterly fund-raising record of $10.3 million.

By the time Sept. 30 rolled around, the campaign hadn't just broken the record, it had smashed it.  Dean raised $14.8 million in the third quarter, triple the amount of his closest rival.

At Dean's headquarters, staffers celebrated by presenting Trippi with a cake in the shape of a baseball bat.

"Look at where we've gotten to," Trippi rejoiced.  "We broke the record.  Nobody can ever take this from you guys."

Contact Sam Hemingway at 660-1850 or



Back to General Dean Stuff

Or else I'm just a Luddite