Dean campaign provides lessons for future

Posted 11:16am March 1

by Aaron Huertas
U-WIRE Washington Bureau

The rise and fall of former Vermont governor Howard Dean provides intense political drama and lessons for current and future candidates for President.

Dean started his bid for the Presidency as a little known former governor of a small state. He was the first of the Democratic candidates to differentiate himself from the administration over the Iraq War. Dean tapped into a highly mobilized base that was fed up with what they viewed as an unnecessary war. Dean’s campaign used the internet in a new way to organize supporters and raise money.

The campaign e-mailed supporters and posted urgent deadlines for fundraising as the candidates moved to report the amount of money they raised each quarter of 2003. Dean raised $41 million last year, eclipsing his rivals and making him the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

Many Dean supporters contributed in small amounts. Simon Rosenberg, president of the centrist New Democrat Network, told The Washington Post that Democrats would be using the Dean model to change fundraising practices.

“We had a different model in the ’90s. The other model was: There are a few thousand people who we needed to fund our politics,” he said. “Now, regular people and their labor — and their money — is a core part of what we do every day.”

His campaign was also the first to notably take advantage of the website Meetup.com. Over 185,000 Dean supporters got together all across the country though the website, giving Dean a huge base even before voting had started.

Joe Trippi, Dean’s one-time campaign manger told the Post “The big question with online stuff was: Okay, great — they’re online. But can you get people to do anything off-line in their communities by using the Net?”

Meetup.com, he said, showed campaigns could. Dean started receiving endorsements from Washington politicians eager to have a primary season short on attacks within the party. A month before the Iowa caucuses, former Vice-President and Presidential candidate Al Gore endorsed Dean.

While much was made of the move in the media and in a subsequent debate among the nominees, endorsements don’t necessarily resonate with most voters. Dean’s success in the pre-primary season didn’t translate into votes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Much of the coverage of candidates focuses on expectations. Dean had a commanding lead in Iowa and New Hampshire polls several weeks before the candidates descended onto the states. Before Iowa, Dean was the choice of 22 percent, outpacing his rivals, in a national CNN poll when put in with all nine candidates.

In one-on-one match ups, Dean was way ahead of his opponents. He polled at 46 percent against his closest rival, former NATO commander Wesley Clark, at 32 percent. While people believed that Dean was going to be the eventual nominee, he was not the first preference of nearly 80 percent of respondents.

As the presumptive front-runner Dean also received more media coverage than his rivals. While this bolstered his image, it also made Dean a target for his rivals and amplified his missteps. Dean’s shoot-from the hip straight talker style was a plus for some voters, but sometimes alienated others when he slipped.

In summer of last year Dean was criticized for saying the United States must prepare for the day when its military is not the strongest in the world. Dean said the Democrats needed to reach out to voters “with Confederate flags on the back of their pick-up trucks”. While he was talking about a particular white Southern male demographic, he was pounced on and accused of racial insensitivity for invoking the flag.

Dean also said America would be “no safer” after Saddam Hussein’s capture. While he was attacked for that statement at the time, attacks continued on American troops in Iraq and some of his former rivals now echo his sentiment.

As the campaigns entered the primary process Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt and Dean were the chief contenders for Iowa. The two started running attack ads on one another as they fought for first place. Their attacks worked, with voters abandoning both camps. As Dean’s numbers fell, the positive media he had enjoyed started falling off. Pundits and voters were wondering if Dean could beat Bush if he won the nomination.

Dean finished a disappointing third and Gephardt dropped out of the race after a fourth place finish. Dean hadn’t met expectations.

Dean may also have made other tactical mistakes. Kerry “threw everything he had into Iowa, and we got sucked into believing that we had to run a 50-state campaign,” a Dean adviser told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Dean’s campaign had been spending money for advertisements in states that wouldn’t be holding primaries or caucuses for many months.

Dean tried to rally his supporters after the showing by taking off his coat and rolling up his sleeves in a fiery speech. “You know something? If you had told us one year ago that we’re going to come in third in Iowa, we would have given anything for that,” he said.

Dean’s speech became more and more intense as the crowd became louder and louder. One camera equipped with a microphone that picked up only what it was pointed at provided video of the speech that showed Dean screaming “Yeahhhh!” after ticking off the states the campaign would be moving on to.

The media played the footage over and over, giving Dean an image of a candidate unhinged. He appeared on Dateline with his wife to quell such criticism. A video emerged that showed the speech from the crowd. Dean sounded less flustered, but by the time the alternate video came out, the damage to his campaign was already done. Perhaps Dean made the mistake of appearing a little too human to be President.

After Iowa, Dean went into freefall as the media and voters started concentrating on other candidates.

After losing New Hampshire, Dean hired Roy Neel, Al Gore’s former chief of staff to run his campaign. Joe Trippi, Dean’s former manager who was credited with building his candidate up from obscurity, decided to quit the campaign.

Dean said he would make his last stand in the Wisconsin primary, but then backed off that statement. A senior campaign official left Dean’s camp after saying he would go over the John Kerry if Dean lost in Wisconsin.

After a third-place finish there Dean announced he would no longer actively campaign for the Democratic nomination. Dean remains on the ballot in upcoming states and he urged supporters to vote for him in order to send progressive delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

Dean has not endorsed any of his formal rivals, and it is still unclear where they will end up. Some Dean supporters simply want a man who can beat Bush. Both John Kerry and John Edwards have polled above Bush in national preference polls. Edwards is a freshman Senator, but neither he nor Kerry can fully claim Dean’s outsider mantle.

And both candidates are relentlessly on message, avoiding off-the-cuff remarks that Dean thought of as natural.

Dean said his campaign showed that Democrats could win “by standing up and telling the truth and not worrying about polls and focus groups.”

Dean may try to preserve some of the structure of his campaign and turn it into a group within the Democratic Party. Where his political future lies is yet to be seen, however Dean’s candidacy provided many valuable lessons for future candidates.

It showed the power of the internet to raise funds and organize volunteers, but it also showed that wasn’t enough to ensure wins. He showed that the shoot-from the hip style garners you attention, but not necessarily the good kind. He also showed the importance of financial prudence in a campaign. This week the campaign sent out an email asking supporters for money as the campaign was over $400,000 in debt.

Most importantly, he showed that no matter how far you rise, in today’s fast paced political environment with a 24 hour news cycle and a front-loaded primary schedule, you can fall just as fast.

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