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Meta-analysis of the Dean campaign

<![CDATA[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. […]

<![CDATA[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.]]>

13 replies on “Meta-analysis of the Dean campaign”

There’s a lot here to digest, and I’m slowly writing my own take on the past week’s event. But I did want to comment here on one thing.
I see a lot of parallels between the problems being encountered by the Dean campaign and those faced by any start-up in the business world.
It’s very possibe to find some people who are willing to “drink the Kool-Aid.” To sign onto the crusade and work endless hours with just the promise of a good outcome.
But the Dean supporters (much like many start-up employees) confused passion with success. And like any good software company, they can’t understand why the best tools can’t win the day.
Dean and his top people may indeed embrace the net and even be “one of us.” But all that means is that I wouldn’t mind hoisting a few drinks with them. That doesn’t mean I’m at all convinced he should be President.
Sure, talking about social software is interesting in the abstract. And it may even be relavant to part of the problem Dean is having this week.
But as much as folks like to blame the media, or the dumb people who just don’t “get it,” I honestly believe that many voters make that final decision on who to support based on their gut. Who do they like? Who do they trust? Who is the least dangerous and most likely to provide the best results for me and for my country.
In the end, it’s all about the candidate.

Rick — Thanks, and I agree about the candidates being the deciding factor. Since I dealt with how Dean fumbled the ball when he gave the wrong speech in front of cameras last week, that’s not the focus of this piece. He could have won New Hampshire if he’d given his New Hampshire concession speech in Iowa. As it is, he gave ordinary folks the willies, not because he was “angry” but because he seemed to ignore the larger audience seeing him being tested for the first time.
When Deaniacs say “Well, we saw something completely different in Iowa; it was a great pep talk,” I think this confirms that they don’t understand that it is not about them or the software they use, but about the country at large. Every American has the right and responsibility to judge candidates by whatever criteria they choose–sure, it would be great if the gut didn’t rule, but we’re not going to change human nature this year.
Mitch

Mitch,
I very much enjoyed your essay. Michael Cudahy and I will have an op-ed, currently called “The Art of Winning”, out on this coming Sunday. We have a some what different take on the Dean campaign’s problems. Our analysis predicts that he could not have won NH in any case and that he does not have the time to do what he would have to do to practise the art of winning in this election cycle.
This is an important conversation as we do have to figure out a way to repudiate the Neo-con’s political vision and remove them from power in Nov. 2004.

Dean: (Re)stating the obvious
There are some topics which are so hot-button that any criticism, even speculative and limited, can read as complete dismissal. So it is with my Is Social Software Bad for the Dean campaign? piece of Monday. The thing that put…

“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.”
Mitch, as we discussed earlier, I don’t think it’s correct to say it was the software. At least, I think it’s misleading. I mean, you can say that the software made Dean so successful at one point that the campaign assumed they could sustain the numbers in the polls, and by the time the numbers were falling, there was too little time to recover. If that’s accurate, then the problem was a matter of choice and human failing.
The software didn’t “allow people to.” More accurately, “people chose to.”
Dean and supporters could have chosen to acknowledge that it ain’t over until the votes are cast, and the result might have been different.
Actually, I’m not sure they were really complacent. I do think there were problems of strategy and organization, more than complacency or arrogance.
As for the software, it’s been promising, but it’s somewhat patched together – Meetup.com, Yahoo groups, Deanspace web sites, various installs with products like phpbb, etc. Various database packages in the field. I think we’re getting a good sense what effective campaign software would look like. I don’t think we have the ideal campaign software package yet. When we do, if it brings big success, the trick is to follow Kerry’s lead. Note that he says he’s still the underdog. Safest to assume you’re not the winner til you’ve won.

Halfway there, agreed – this is still a untapped area, and one that neither MoveOn nor other advocacy groups have mastered…
A scalable policy engine seems to me to have the same main characteristics as a dynamic FAQ would (with data graphing, wiki, blog components as well). DeanDefense.org was heading in this direction at one point, specifically in defense of positions, not necessarily expanded to the formulation and mapping functions…
I like it…

As a current “neutral” with friends working in several camps….Looking at the times’ poll of where candidates got their votes – http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2004/01/28/politics/campaign/20040128_ELEC_GRAPH2.html
shows that people still believe Dean “stands up for what he believes in” and that the most people who were ‘Angry’ about the job Bush has done voted for Dean.
But when it came to issues in general (actually, Kerry was low here), and in specific on healthcare, economy and education, the candidates have the same or similar numbers. Only the ‘war on iraq’ issue separated them.
While I believe being anti-the-war is an important issue, Dean isn’t going to win on it.
As we’ve discussed before Mitch – only if the campaign starts being what its supporters want (on policy) will it get the leap ahead it needs.

Jon — I think you’ve hit it on the head that the software enabled behavior, but that is just one component of the political assessment. The software was the reason many people got and stayed involved in the Dean campaign. They were building product without a political goal firmly in mind. It’s a very human mistake.
Likewise, people connecting through the software assumed they had stronger commitments than they really did, if the vote is any evidence.

Mitch, your analysis is clear and correct.
Tech4Dean has encountered this issue and is in the process of developing campaign tools that are more typical of winning political campaigns.
I’ll be glad to write more about this in a future comment. Please feel free to email me for more information.

Collecting Comments on Internet Campaigns
A lot of smart people are thinking deeply about the promise and perils of online political organizing and the lessons to be drawn from the Howard Dean experience. The commonality that I see is the idea of a disconnect between

Dean, Software, and Democracy
Mitch Ratcliffe and Britt Blaser have posted insights about the Dean campaign’s recent primary losses and Clay Shirky’s comments in his post “Is Social Software Bad for the Dean Campaign?” Clay has followed up with a post explaining that he…

Gonzo Democracy
Posted by The Happy Tutor PAPER : e-Democracy – Putting Down Global Roots – This paper by the Institute for Electronic Government talks about e-government and the ways modern politicians and leaders need to look at it in a digital world.

About Thomas Edison:-
The myth many Americans have learnt off by heart goes that it took Thomas Edison over 3,000 experiments before he finally invented the electric light bulb and received a patent for it. The 3,000 plus experiments is obviously why Mr. Edison always insisted that invention was 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration–but is the rest of the story correct?
See what you think when you get a few more facts. Thomas Alva Edison, and a paid staff of at least 10 employees did “perfect,” through months of trial and error testing, and subsequently patent “an Improvement in Electric Lamps, and in the method of manufacturing the same” to quote from US patent number 223,898 granted on January 27, 1880. In reality, Mr. Edison’s light bulb was simply the first truly commercially viable electric lamp in the United States.
An English gentleman (Joseph Swan) patented a similar light bulb in England a few months before Edison and other light bulb development considerably predated that. In fact, on October 8, 1883 the US Patent Office ruled that Edison’s US Patent was invalid due to prior art by William Sawyer. To summarize the story so far, the “light bulb” idea was not Edison’s, successful development took considerable resources, and Edison’s patent was worthless well before it had a chance to expire.
But Edison’s light bulb must have been a smashing success right? After all, it cost him over $10,000–in 1879 dollars when cheap labor cost 7 cents an hour–and everybody must have wanted electric light bulbs right? Some $200,000 plus later the light bulb was commercialized and 3,144 light bulbs had been sold to 203 customers by sometime in 1882. By 1889, 10 years after the patent, there were only 710 customers. The problem was that electricity and its support infrastructure cost too much and, of course, had to be installed. Ten more years later, after electricity costs had come down, there were 3 million customers and all the basic light bulb patents had expired. In fact it took 46 years for electric lighting to reach just 25% of the US population.
Seven years, and more than $100,000 in litigation expenses after Edison’s patent was invalidated by the US Patent Office, on October 6, 1889, a judge ruled that the electric light improvement claim for “a filament of carbon of high resistance” was valid. Unfortunately further research exposed in A Streak of Luck by Robert Conot (1979), also shows that Edison and his attorneys hid significant information from the judge. They cut out the October 7-21, 1879 section of a notebook that the judge might have determined showed that they were simply extending Sawyer’s (or Swan’s) work with carbon “burners” or “rods” in an evacuated glass bulb.
The reality probably is that all Edison and his team did was change their terminology to “filament” and there is a high probability they got that from a presentation Mr. Swan made in the US after filing for his patent in England. In fact, Edison and his team did not find a commercially workable filament (bamboo) until more than 6 months after Edison filed the patent application. The weak and short lived (40-150 hours) carbon filament was laid to rest for good by the coming of the tungsten filament in 1906.
History is a funny old thing who knows in a few years time history books will tell the story of how ESA the European Space Agency discovered water on Mars in 2004. Perhaps Lisa Simpson was right (from the episode where she discovers the truth about the founding father of Springfield), if it makes people happy who cares if it’s just a lie, a myth, and after all there are 600 million Europeans and only 300 million Americans maybe its for the greater good that ESA discovered water on Mars first. Screw the truth that not politics.