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 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.