Saturday, February 28, 2004

5 minutes to explain the Dean phenomenon

I have been invited to present to a high-powered group of Illinois Democrats on Monday morning. The group will include Governor Blagojevich — and the subject is how to energize the grassroots people who’ve felt out of touch with the Democratic Party. My role is, as someone closely involved with the Dean technology crew, to explain what we did and why it worked.

Here’s what I think were the keys to the Dean success (the barometer for purposes of this discussion is fundraising, not election results):

  • Give people a voice. The minute people think their voice is heard is the minute they feel empowered. Empowered individuals want to see their group succeed, and money was universally acknowledged as an important yardstick of the group’s success.

  • Talk back. Communication is about dialogue, not press releases. When campaigns engage their supporters, let their supporters (as well as their opponents) speak up, and most importantly, when they respond, the campaign appears more authentic. Authenticity breeds respect. And respect earns the people’s commitment.

  • Make supporters visible. By making individuals’ contributions visible (and the results of those contributions apparent), Dean was sharing the spotlight. When he said “this race is about you, not me”, he meant it. People who were either disenchanted with traditional politics, or cynical about their ability to make a difference to begin with, suddenly felt like they really could do something.

  • Be transparent. Transparency affected all levels of the campaign — from being open about fundraising goals (and their progress to those goals) to sharing works-in-progress on policy issues — and it made supporters feel like they were contributing to that progress instead of taking orders from above. Furthermore, as goals got within reach, supporters dug in and gave more (money, time, energy) to reach the goal.

  • Give up control. This is perhaps the scariest for those who’ve been around a while. Dean’s campaign didn’t try to control the message or the medium, instead choosing to let the grassroots run with it. This is where the barometer mentioned above is important: from a fundraising perspective, this lack of control gave each contributor a sense of ownership. It’s arguable that this lack of control is what contributed to the transition from a campaign to a movement, but that’s fodder for a different analysis.

So… I’ve got five minutes on Monday to boil this down and try to ensure that those in the crowd understand that it’s not about bits and bytes, not about keyboards and mousepads, but about energy. And enthusiasm. And passion. And I believe the bullets above highlight how the Dean campaign tapped each of those. I’d love to hear your thoughts. What have I missed?


  1. Besides for expecting them to wonder how their buddies can profit. After all it is Illinois politics... It would be interesting to see if Chicago ward machines can or even would have any interest in actaully trying this stuff.

  2. Don't forget the need for a strong candidate. I don't think any of your ideas would have done much good for Joe Lieberman, for example.

  3. I think you might want to read Howard Kurtz's piece in the Washington Post this gives an interesting

  4. Read this. Joe Trippi gave a talk about the conflicts between netroots and the campaign. This is a summary.,3959,1530690,00.asp

  5. It is astonishing that you are spending tons of energy talking about what went right with the Dean Campaign and absolutly nothing about what went wrong with it and how to go about changing what went wrong.

    Was it Dean's message no one liked? Dean was far too liberal? Dean was just a baffoon who made too many mistakes? Dean's attack ads went over board? Dean Youth Organization spent tons of their time HATING BUSH and absolutely none of their time giving any voters an explanation or re-assurance of how a Radical like Howard Dean could get the Moderate/Centrist vote and Swing Voters, Split Ticket Voters. How Dean could reach out to Hispanics?

    Youth People organize well with heated anger but they don't vote? The real question is why in the hell bother organizing the Youth if they don't vote?

    There's plenty of questions that have so far gone unanswered. And that is astonishing, albeit not surprising. I don't carry much weight with the Left that they would ever blame themselves for any mistakes they make.

  6. visit my dean for america website @ and jeff the only thing that ruined dean was the fact that too many americans are corporate mainstream media fed idiots. dean screamed. and so what? so the fact he cut child abuse 50% in vermont doesn't matter now? the fact that he raised school test scores with his genius reworking of the distribution of the funding there? made it so over 33% of the energy vermont uses is renewable, that vermont ranks 1st in the percentage of children with health insurance? that he set aside 470,000 acres of land for conservation balanced the budget 11 years cut taxes set aside a rainy day fund i could go on.. all the amazing things he's done and wants to do for us don't matter? they do matter just dem. voters didn't research these candidates and all they know about dean is that he screamed because the mainstream media played that soundbite 700 times a day, more times than they showed twin towers falling, more times than they've ever played anything it broke every record. it's not deans fault americans are shallow and watch too much tv and it's not his fault kerry and bush have spent a combined 6 million on negative adds about dean, some even showing deans picture then osamas. this is the same country that was 90% behind the war in iraq the day after it started and now we know there were no weapons we never saw any proof in the first place. americans don't like smart honest people like dean. they like idiots who lie to them and remind them of themselves and that's not deans problem. another thing you getting mad at dean for involving youth in his campaign because they aren't old enough to vote is absurd, also dean is not a radical he's fiscal concervative social liberal and nothing radical about him i can see unless, as you seem to think, caring for childrens rights i.e. americas future, makes a person radical because children can't vote. mayb all you know about him yourself is that he screamed, you can't know anything about him and still think he's a radical. you're a weirdo, i'm glad you don't like dean. people like you, make people who don't like dean, look like creeps. i'm 28 years old btw so now you know there are people supporting dean who aren't children who can and will vote.