Internet

Dean's List

Can the Vermont guv flash mob his way to power?

|

The crowd in Philadelphia got a quick lesson in viral marketing from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who urged his supporters to spam the hell out of their friends.

"When we send you stuff, you send it to your e-mail list. A hundred people on everybody's email list here, that's four hundred thousand people!" Dean said at a rally on Monday that dwarfed the response other candidates received.

Is Dean nuts or is he onto something? Probably a little of both, which makes him dangerous to status quo assumptions about how 2004 will unfold. Maybe people really want to hike the minimum wage, repeal President Bush's modest tax cuts, bail out crumbling, mismanaged municipalities, and keep shoveling money into Social Security. You never know.

At a minimum, Dean's campaign is setting a new standard for integrating the Internet into the overall campaign and is using a number of free or nearly free off-the-shelf components to do it. Email is the most obvious new tool, one that was destined to take over for the more labor-intensive phone.

"A phone tree isn't an ancient form of political organizing, but you have to call every person," Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution told Reason this spring.

"One of the reasons why the street demonstrations in the Philippines worked, and the riots in Nigeria worked, is that you can send a text message to people and they can forward it to everyone in their address books. So you can communicate with a very large network very quickly in a way that you simply can't with a telephone," Rheingold explains.

So Dean gets that concept and is featuring it in his stump speeches. But the campaign is also reaching out to Web-based tools too. Meetup.com is positively overrun with Dean support groups, which is good news for communities who would otherwise have to explain why pagan/witchcraft or Insane Clown Posse is the top civic interest in town.

Last month, the Dean camp used Meetup pull 78,000 supporters together. Already 5,000 more have signed up for next month's get-together. The next largest Dem candidate Meetup contingent belongs to John Kerry with a piddling 8,600.

So it is a given that Dean should have an advantage over campaigns which rely on phones to reach their voters. It is fantastically expensive to pay for table after table of phone banks, even when you stock them with volunteers. And Meetup can bring supporters together and energize them to go out to hear the candidate and build a good crowd for the media. Dean is clearly at the front of these changes, which will take many election cycles to complete.

But all that gets Dean is a cheaper, better way to turn out his voters. What if he doesn't have enough voters? More to the point, what if someone else has a few more? Dean's still a loser. To win a candidate needs ways to create more voters for their side. That is where old media has been tremendously effective over the years.

Something as low-tech as a slate of negative ads on crappy AM stations in key areas works wonders at turning a voter away from one side and toward another. Such a tactic even helped pump some life into the Elder Bush's campaign against Bill Clinton, a lost cause if there ever was one.

Dumber still are the post cards and other pieces of paper that can be passed around a district to flush out new voters and take votes from the other guy. Ask former Speaker of the House Tom Foley about how well they can work.

So can anything in Dean's bag of bits be so effective? There might be the makings of a massively distributed pro-Dean propaganda machine in the formative stage. And that's propaganda in the least pejorative sense of the word, information that is bent to a particular goal and worldview.

DeanSpace is an open source built template for pro-Dean Web sites. Dean supporters can—and have—used the package to put up their own Dean sites. Despite the no doubt honest claims to the contrary, DeanSpace needs a good bit of computer savvy to get up and running, certainly more than clicking on a link at Meetup. But in exchange for little user work Dean acolytes get a very powerful tool to help spread Dean's message and, presumably, create Dean voters.

Using a very robust database known as MySQL to manage things like mailing lists, events, and comments, DeanSpace can help bring order to what otherwise might just be a heartfelt fan site. Further, using the content manger Drupal lets these Dean sites create and update news feeds which can advance the campaign's message minute by minute. Or—and this is the great unknown—muddy and obscure that message.

It is relatively easy to keep on message this early in the campaign as the message is primarily one of touting Dean's crowds and bashing the Bush administration. It is when Dean has to produce specifics on exactly how he would fund Social Security in perpetuity or when he has to fend off an attack from another candidate on his tenure in Vermont that the far-flung nature of these Dean amplifiers may backfire. The key will be just how well information flows up and down and across this ad hoc Dean network.

And suppose lightning strikes and Dean takes the Democratic nomination. That's the end of his high-tech organizational juggernaut, right? Karl Rove executes a massive TV air campaign for George W. Bush and Dean does an amazing impersonation of George McGovern circa 1972. Except just like the Net that was built to survive nuclear airbursts, Dean's smart mobs might be hard to defeat without meeting them on the ground. Bush TV ads might be dissected and neutralized in real time in every market they are run in.

Or all the mobsters might all be out playing duck-duck-goose in the park or pretending to be robots, an inherent risk when your campaign rides the bleeding edge of culture and tech.