Meta-analysis of the Dean campaign

Here’s a crazy thought: Could the widespread discussion of the Dean campaign’s current challenges produce a retooling of its software (both the code and the ideas in people’s heads) fast enough to yield an astonishing turnaround that out-turnarounds John Kerry? Not if Dean and camp are defensive about the critiques and refuse to internalize them. If it is true that no corporation can access all the intelligence in the world if it is closed off from the world, it is certainly true that a campaign that sees criticism of its strategy as an attack on the candidate will grow dumber by the minute.

Could the Dean campaign turn on a dime, like Microsoft reacting to the Web browser or Roosevelt’s America, which quadrupled production capacity of planes and ships to win World War II?

I haven’t seen specific examples of lashing out at critics from the Dean camp, but it is clear to me that the criticism of Howard Dean’s choice of speech topics in Iowa and questions about whether its Internet strategy failed or whether the Internet failed the campaign is going down hard. The bitterest experience, however, yields the greatest lessons. Are the Deaniacs ready to swallow the medicine? Are they ready to see that everything should be open to question in an open campaign, including whether the software they used turned out to be a distraction from the real challenge of getting voters to the polls?

The problem with the lesson to be learned here is that the fact is the software itself isn’t to blame. It’s a tool that was misused and, in some cases, poorly designed–like most software–by people. People who want to assign blame somewhere else. That’s human and I am talking to and about no one in particular when I point this out. When a political campaign is over, most folks blame someone else for its failure. They blame the press. They blame the schmuck at headquarters who didn’t return their calls fast enough. They blame the guy who forgot to stop at the retirement home where 30 seniors were waiting for a ride to vote on primary day. They blame people who criticize the campaign.

They seldom blame themselves and they seldom blame the candidate. You see, the candidate is like Jesus, something better and higher than the rest of us that supporters believe in–the candidate is let down by someone. And that someone is often the political professional who is a professional precisely because they have decided to accept the blame by taking a paycheck for doing the job rather than just volunteering. In a democracy this rush to idealize candidates is all the more the case, as we’ve destroyed the idea of nobility and try to recover a sense of “election” through our individual political choices. By choosing to support a candidate, we perform an act of canonization, which is why we so often turn ferociously on fallen political stars.

At the heart of this is a simple reality: A bottom-up campaign needs to collect ideas and criticism as widely as possible in order to grow and thrive, whether it succeeding at the polls or not, because an “emergent” process like democracy dies when it stops changing.

All this is prelude to the following links and observations:

Clay Shirky has asked whether social software hurt the Dean campaign, a question many took to be misplaced. Clay begins with an assumption that is important to his critical stance. Everything is couched in a Big If:

In the same way, talking about Dean’s third-place showing in terms of ‘momentum’ and ‘character’, the P/E and EBITDA of campaigns, may miss the point. Dean did poorly because not enough people voted for him, and the usual explanations – potential voters changed their minds because of his character or whatever – seem inadequate to explain the Iowa results. What I wonder is whether Dean has accidentally created a movement (where what counts is believing) instead of a campaign (where what counts is voting.)

And (if that’s true) I wonder if his use of social software helped create that problem.

Britt Blaser, a full-time Deaniac, writes in reply to Clay Shirky:

What’s really at work here is a sense of treason and loss. Some Netizens seem to feel betrayed by the Dean campaign since it isn’t fulfilling a Jongian dream of a zipless victory. The Dean campaign may have violated some followers’ tender sensibilities by starting strong but finishing 3rd in the only “primary” that isn’t actually a vote but rather a get-together where older people sit around and debate candidates over bean salad. Surely this means that the best-financed and populated campaign is doomed to failure in every other state where people actually vote behind a curtain rather than a coffee cup.

We fantasize that bloggers – especially the Power Law bloggers like Clay Shirky – are leading edge and visionary. But this feels like criticizing Edison for the flaming filaments or Wilbur and Orville for failed airfoils.

Let’s get a grip, people! The Dean campaign is as close as we’re going to get to one that conforms to the values we’ve been fantasizing since 0 BC (Blogging Commenced). After pining for an Internet-based solution to the old political order, are we going to cut and run at the first hint of a setback?

Actually, we’ve been dreaming of a great candidate since long before blogs. Our forebears were dreaming of better leaders when they tossed the British out of their colonies. But Britt both damns naysayers who want their zipless victory through software and celebrates the inspiration provided by social software, which apparently launched the fantasy of a perfect candidacy. My question is, which is it? Did the people fail or did the software?

David Weinberger took a different angle on this with a posting to his new Corante Blog, Loose Democracy:

We do have a couple of indisputable facts: Dean came in a poor third in Iowa and a disappointing second in New Hampshire. But this by itself leads to no conclusions about whether social software hurt the campaign. For all we know, Dean would still be in single digits as an ex-governor of the Maple Sugar state if the online connection hadn’t happened. And we certainly don’t know that, if social software failed, it was because it lulled participants into a sense of “inevitability.” That’s just Clay’s speculation.

But speculation has a political effect. I don’t have evidence other than participatory. And I am a partisan, so, I certainly don’t trust my own experience. But if I’m embrace Clay’s argument, I need more from him than a string of what-if’s and a quick gesture at what “we know” about why social software has failed in the past. After all, I have to weigh that against both the campaign’s explicit rejection of a masturbatory online approach and my personal interaction with hundreds of people who met on the Net and then hit the streets in some very cold weather.

Clay is a powerful writer and thinker. I think he’s wrong here, but the meme is attractive. That worries me.

It worries me that we can’t talk about why the Dean network didn’t produce exactly the results it was designed to (if, indeed, the point was to win a political campaign): VOTES. Meme, schmeme. If social software can’t take a little serious criticism, it’s doomed anyway. We’re not going to turn away from the Net as a political tool. The challenge is to make it a better and more effective tool quickly.

Clay is correct, the software allowed people in the Dean campaign to take their eye off the ball and the turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire proved that. The press didn’t fail Howard Dean’s candidacy, the campaign thought it had covered bases that were obviously left unprotected. It failed to get the vote out because it was watching the donation bat on DeanforAmerica.com fill with another pulse of campaign funding.

I’m not speculating about this — look at the donation fetishism that dominates the DeanforAmerica site. A half-million donors and 10,000 volunteers are not sufficient to change the nation because of political inertia. If the campaign had translated its energy to become many organizations (by adopting and enabling issues-based constituencies through the same kind of hard-bitten interaction the candidate was having with other candidates), it would have engaged the vote, not just the pocketbook. As it is, I think we saw the rational ignorance argument, that voters invest in weak ways in representation out of the belief that they will have little individual impact, proved in spades.

Britt is also correct that it is hard to win an election and that the primary season is only getting underway. I’ve already made clear that I think, given its strategy through this morning, when Howard Dean reportedly starting meeting with advisors, the Dean campaign will fail to win the nomination. It will probably be Kerry/Edwards. But, the Deaniacs could, by the very skin of its teeth, pull out a victory if the campaign moves fast and ruthlessly to fix its mistakes. Just trying helps, as the late recovery in New Hampshire shows — but that urgency to pull out a second-place finish isn’t a substitute for a new strategy.

I’ve been saying for a long time that the Dean campaign mastered only half, and the less important half, of online organization building. Raising money is relatively easy, at least in retrospect. There is a reason that spammers use the Net — it does produce revenue when you send a lot of messages. That’s basic direct marketing and I congratulate Trippi et. al. on doing it in politics first and better than I would have imagined it could be done. What is missing, however, is engagement on the policy level. An electorate that felt the candidate was growing closer and more deeply enmeshed with the particulars of their concerns will turn out the vote. Dean has issued policy statements, but he hasn’t started talking about new issues that were raised from the grassroots. He is still on the three basic issues he started on: fiscal discipline; healthcare; the war. The Internet policy is brilliant, but it is a niche issue, at best. And, if the Net is the definition of what America needs to do today, the country is in a really bad way. (See “One ill for another?”)

So, it’s not surprising the vote in Iowa didn’t turn out: Iowans want to see a reflection of their concerns, not a storm of someone else’s opinion. There is a clearly visible disconnect between the campaign and the electorate, it’s at the voting booth. We are looking at a last-mile problem, though I think it’s more likely a problem of bridging the last 100 miles between the voter and any greater consituency (greater than “local”).

Going beyond Clay’s statements about the outcome in Iowa, Dean not only failed to win, he failed to produce a victory out of that defeat by using his first time in front of the national audience as a man being tested to declaim his success at setting the terms of the Democratic debate. That’s real politics on the ground. He misjudged his audience, ignoring the vast majority of voters who were watching at the time he spoke in Iowa– it was a boneheaded move, not an unforgivable one. He’s human, so are all of us. But, we do get to sit and judge his judgment because he’s running for president, not us.

If the campaign had been collecting and incorporating the issues, building the details of a platform throughout the Dean ascendancy, it would have annealed itself to the voters’ personal agendas. I’m not suggesting he be all things to all people, but that by debating with supporters rather than talking at them through aides and emails, Dean could have done what the convention used to do: Create a coalition of coalitions behind a coherent set of policies that united and activated larger and larger constituencies; a platform, something virtually absent from national politics since the 1980 election.

Engagement means arguing with, convincing and compromising with your constituency. The Dean system, which emphasized bottom-up organization of a network, but top-down delivery of policy (through a system of small advisory groups that presented the candidate with policies that, once approved, were unveiled to the electorate), remained relatively aloof from the individual voter. Britt may not see it that way, but he was involved day-to-day as a true believer. That’s a great thing.

Last summer, Britt, Doc and I were sitting talking at Powell’s Books in Portland about the Dean campaign. I said I wanted to have a real impact on the campaign, which I think might have been taken as meaning that I wanted to run or be a top advisor to the campaign, but my point was that I wanted to see the campaign take me seriously enough as an individual citizen to argue with me. That’s clued. As a creator of publications and events, I can say with authority that this can be done in a very efficient manner, but when I pointed out this idea, it was ignored by the campaign. They weren’t interested, because they had completely hacked the fund-raising mechanism, which felt like enough. It wasn’t.

Now, given that the system as it is designed now has failed to produce a campaign win, what needs to be improved. I think I’ve made my ideas clear: Build for engagement. Debate with your own supporters and by converting them to your opinions when you are right and adopting their when they are or compromising when you can to extend your coalition to create an enduring movement that will get people out on the streets and to the polls. If not this year, then next time. Better, do it for another candidate–there is a political eternity between now and November.

Everyone should build more tools and think and argue about how to use them better. The energy Deaniacs feel is a common experience in political campaigns, even if the tone and character of the Dean Rush is unique–being involved in your community’s politics is invigorating, it’s a wonderful high that might never wear off, as long as you keep at it.

UPDATE: According to the Daily Kos, Joe Trippi is out of the Dean campaign as of this afternoon.

Last week

Talking Points Memo relates what I’ve been saying about Dean’s speech in Iowa, relating the comments of a reporter in New Hampshire tonight after Dean’s second-place speech: “If he would have given this speech last week, this would be a very different story.”

So, Dean’s learning. The show isn’t over. The decision isn’t going his way, but he could salvage an important role in the convention and through the fall.

Campaign poker and the bluffing of the presidency

The Head Lemur has a fantastic posting on the the fact that the Net is an increasingly important venue for political action, but still has a long way to go. Read the whole thing. Here are a couple of juicy bits….

The internet as a venue for social change is undeniable. It is a heartwarming experience for a geek like me. Having been involved in various internet campaigns on other issues, the speed, distribution and collectivism of internet action is a given to me. Print and Broadcast Media has gotten a real good bitchslapping from the internet. They don’t understand that the internet is not about email and pets anymore. As a venue for political action it is picking up speed, but is far short of meaningful.

I am only picking on Dean as they are the most visible, and have everything to lose.

The Iowa Caucus illustrates this point dramatically. The Deaniacs created this gorgeous online political movement and got thousands of folks plugged in and moving in one direction. Others soon followed. They decended on Iowa and got their asses handed to them. The buzz was there, the candidate was there, the streets were littered with Deaniacs. They missed the delegates. [substantial portion snipped]

The Democratic candidate who will make it to the big table toplay for all the chips, needs to do the following things;

Stop slapping at the other candidates. It makes you all look like morons.

OHHH LOOOK! the other guy in my party is an idiot!

That’s Presidential. He can recognize an idiot. Where did he learn to do that? Birds of a Feather? Takes one to know one? You get my drift….

Stop congratulating yourselves on how many hits your websites are getting.

The connected are not the key to the election. The unconnected are.

Yep. Off your ass and into the streets.

Now, folks, there is some bitching about people being too hard on Howard Dean for his misjudging who he was talking to after his less-than-dominating performance in Iowa. The folks in the audience, who saw the Dean speech from this perspective, are right that it was a good locker room speech. But, as I said before, he wasn’t talking to the room, he had a national audience, virtually for the first time and should have talked about his victory in setting the terms of the debate. And he should have acted presidential, which is what most ordinary Americans do look for in a candidate.

The Head Lemur’s right about the key mistakes a candidate can make when they turn to the Net. Just for historical context, let’s remember it is early and that every primary season is a monstrously ferocious game of poker. Here is Theodore White on the 1960 primaries, which should make the naifs who are saying it is “late” in the campaign, too late for in-fighting, settle down and enjoy the battle:

A primary fight, at any level, is America’s most original contribution to the art of democracy–an, at any level, it is that form of the art most profanely reviled and intensely hated by every professional who practices politics as a trade.

In theory a primary fight removes the nomination of candidates from the hands of cynical party leadership and puts it directly in the hands of the people who make the party. When, indeed, theory matches fact (for, in some states, primaries are absurdly meaningless), primary contests result in disastrous and unforgettable explosions. A genuine primary is a fight within the family of the party–and, like any family fight, is apt to be more bitter and leave more enduring wounds that battle with the November enemy. In primaries, ambitions spurt from nowhere; unknown men carve their mark; old men are sent relentlessly to their political graves; bosses and leaders may be humiliated or unseated. At ward, county or state level, all primaries are fought with spurious family folksiness–and sharp knives.

Hopefully, we’ll see more policy debate and less electability sniping. But, for now, the question is who we want to be our president. Fight like hell for whomever you support. Don’t lament that people are reacting badly to a boneheaded move. Doubts are what Dr. Dean has to address. Raising doubts is not unloyal or uncommitted, it’s American to doubt our leaders when they don’t live up to expectations. It’s what Dr. Dean has urged us to do with regards President Bush. If we’re going to get that train wreck of a president out of office, we should embrace the ferocity of the primaries with gusto.

Horse and office

Another photoblog day….

My office is always messy. I learned office maintenance from Henry Norr at MacWEEK, who was prodigiously cluttered, relying on his spatial sense of information to keep track of things (which explains why he is a Mac person, too). Anyway, these days I have help adding tot he clutter. Here is my office from the doorway. You can see my daughter’s horse has joined me.

I should probably explain that Barry Soicher’s picture is part of a screen saver on the Mac in the back of the picture. I use screen savers that display the faces of people I work with, but seldom see, to keep my attention on them even though we work seven hundred miles from one another. Barry is my partner in InnovationWORLD. It’s not that I have a sick fixation on Barry–at least, that’s the story I’m sticking with.

One ill for another?

Doc Searls recently wrote about the Howard Dean thing that he wasn’t a partisan for any candidate, rather “I am a partisan for the Net. What I am advocating is clueful use of the Net by every candidate.”

Doc maintains an important distinction in this statement that seems to be lost for many people: The Net is a tool that can be used for good (“clueful’ in Doc’s rendition of goodness) or for ill.

The defense of the Net as an intrinsically good influence on politics is a grotesque mistake. Essentially, it is arguing that the Net should replace the nation as the central identifying characteristic of a people. Now, it is good that the Net extends beyond national boundaries and, so, connects people in transnational communities.

But if we suppose that replacing the jingoistic phrase “My country, right or wrong” with “The network, right or wrong,” we risk creating new forms of totalitarian ideas that could make the nationalist movements of the 20th century look downright tame. After all, the Net reaches everywhere. During a nationalist or tribal genocide, a potential victim can hope to escape the geography where the hatred and killing is a living organ of the state, where a powerful networked movement of irrational hatred would have no borders, leaving no refuge.

It’s not about anger….

A number of friends whom I respect a great deal are writing extensively about Howard Dean’s speech in Iowa. Almost to a man, everyone is focusing on the angry man meme, as David Weinberger puts it, which says that media is propagating a false image of the former Vermont governor based on a long-lived theme in media coverage, that Dean has a bad temper (George W. Bush has a bad temper, but no reporter focuses on that).

I did not see his speech as angry, though he did fall back on trying to tap his supporter’s anger at George Bush — it was a pep talk given at the wrong time. He should have used the national TV time to address his success in shaping the debate in Iowa and talked of taking that success into New Hampshire and on the the other states. He needed, at that moment, to speak in full sentences, because a lot of voters were looking at him to see how he dealt with adversity, which says a lot about what kind of president he might be. Instead of a calm and positive talk about the reasons he should be president, the TV audience saw what he should have done after the cameras were off. Governor Dean could and should have used the camera time to talk then plunged into the crowd to do the pep talk with the shouting.

Jon Lebkowsky says:

My guess is this: what media and corporations and the political establishment fear most about Dean is that he’s his own guy, and his movement is populist – his campaign organization resists the command and control model and tries to be truly democratic. Dean represents an approach that could result in a redistribution of power within the U.S., and any redistribution of power is threatening to those who are powerful today.

I would agree with Jon, if Governor Dean’s campaign was not so reliant on the anti-Bush meme. A populist movement is not founded on grassroots fund-raising, at which the Dean campaign has excelled, but on a coalition of coalitions developing into a parade that a leader appears to represent rather than lead. My favorite populist is Sockless Jerry Simpson, a Kansas congressman who exemplified a type of populism in the 1890s. He wasn’t a national leader per se, instead he led a part of the populist movement to the extent that he represented Kansas populists. It took a William Jennings Bryant, an ego maniac of the first order who buried many populist issues beneath his pet issues, like the gold standard, to stand at the front of a national populist movement as a presidential candidate — and Bryant never won. Sockless Jerry was one guy among millions, not just his “own guy” but a guy of the people. Howard Dean ignored most of the people in the country — many who were watching him for the first time — on that night in Iowa, which was a mistake.

Dave Winer, who was at Dean headquarters that night, tells this story:

I was at Dean headquarters on the night of the Iowa caucuses, and I watched the Dean rant on TV in the office, with the other Web programmers. A few minutes before the speech they had a staff meeting in the conference room. Everyone was there except me and another guest. Not being a staffer, I didn’t belong in the staff meeting. Several times during the meeting a loud crazy-sounding scream came from the room, everyone was doing it, and it was really frightening. The stuff of nightmares. This was before Howard Dean’s rant. I asked Jim Moore what that was about, he said it’s an Indian war yell or something like that, they used to do it in United Farm Workers rallies, and they adopted it at Dean For America. A few minutes later Dean let out the famous scream, it was the same scream I heard in the conference room.

Unfortunately, no one votes based on this insider view. A president belongs to the whole people (except our current president, who is firmly in the pockets of a very few), and the people expect him or her to represent that at all times. Dave says he is more sure than ever that Dean will emerge from New Hampshire a viable candidate. I am certain Dean will not be the nominee.

Doc Searls wrote about Dean’s speech as a Whitmanesque “barbaric yawp.” Beautiful idea, but the yawp vote is not enough to offset the vast center that votes against the yawp. I’d like the United States to awake to the genuine voice of rage and despair that is the barbaric yawp. So much of what made and still, as an echo, makes this country great has been gutted with astonishing speed by a band of radicals who pose as representative to the vast middle. We need a change. Unfortunately, because the Dean campaign has been built primarily on the strength of its fund-raising prowess and has not engaged this massive following in a dialogue that would have made the planks of a Dean platform absolutely critical to a winning Democratic ticket, there is very little to salvage from the efforts of so many people.

I remember when I was a Gary Hart delegate at the Washington State Democratic Convention in 1984 (my first election as a Democrat, where I had been an Anderson Republican in 1980). We had taken the state for Hart and while standing on the convention floor, I watched the Democratic brass, including Rep. Norm Dicks, who is still in Congress, negotiate that victory away for the more “reliable” Walter Mondale in exchange for a guarantee of the 1988 nomination for Hart. I was deeply disappointed and, at 23, had the few ideals I had left about politics after Watergate smashed. That deal led Hart to think he was invincible and resulted in his squandering the 1988 nomination for a tumble between the sheets with Donna Rice.

What will the post-Deaniac feel, realizing that they have had little impact on the actual tone of the Democratic campaign? I don’t mean they haven’t made a huge impact, but that they will have little negotiating power when it comes to setting policy. That may alienate a lot of voters who will take this experience as the definition of politics. Think about the many quotes from Dean workers in Iowa, who expected great things and told reporters “What did I get for all my hard work?”

If politics is about immediate results, which it is for many people, unfortunately, 2004 will be a disappointment that scars them and prevents them from becoming activists, again.

This may sound like I am damning Dean and his staff, but I am not. Howard Dean made a mistake. The huge weight of hopes many people had laid on him will translate the result of that mistake into a judgment that, whether fair or unfair, decides the fate and legacy of the Dean For America campaign.

Rock out with Rap Master Howard

Listen to a remix of Howard Dean’s disastrous post-Iowa speech. The speech, even though I understand he was trying to charge up his troops, should have been given with a mind to the millions of voters seeing him tested for the first time. He screwed the pooch. Further, his and his staff’s complaining about other candidates stealing their lines is so naive — don’t they see and want to take credit for having shaped the debate? Good God, it seems that it is amateur hour in Burlington. They should have declared victory based on the success of the campaign in defining the Democratic agenda, which would have placed them in a good position to go into NH. As it is, they crippled themselves.

Now, through this kind of open source remixing of Dean’s message (really, listen), he may be lifted out of this dead end by his people, but it isn’t likely.

What went wrong? The campaign specialized in raising money and did not get people committed to what Dean stood for, other than his opposition to reelecting President Bush. In my humble opinion, if the Dean crew had opened the making of a platform to the active debate of his network, if he had entered a dialogue with his network about what they were going to stand for, rather than issuing positions and asking for money, he would have created a deeper sense of commitment to his candidacy.

A friend who attended a Silicon Valley meeting for Dean tells me this story: The Northern California fund-raising chief of the Dean campaign was asked what was going on with Dean’s support in Iowa a week or two back and she said, “These polls don’t count the new voters we’ve brought to the caucus process.” That betrays an utterly ideological naivete about the reality on the ground in Iowa — random polls don’t miss new voters, they are more likely to capture those new voters’ sentiments than a poll of Democrats who have participated in past caucuses.

A campaign that was really engaged with its supporters would not be blinded by ideology or poor data. The Dean team focused on the money equation while ignoring the human one. That bodes will for Internet activism, because taking what we’ve learned from the Dean fund-raising phenomenon and combining it with more social networking tools and a determined effort to transform the platform-making process, engaging voters’ interests as well as their wallets, will continue the transformation of campaigning.