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November 18, 2003

Important if True: Online and Offline Meet Up to Change Politics

Ed Cone explains exactly why Howard Dean's "open style" of politics is a big deal--and a big story--whether he or not he wins. This will scramble the mind of the press if the press retains its master narrative: winning.

Ed Cone— journalist, weblogger, tech thinker, biz writer—has done what is so far the definitive piece on What’s Different About Dean and why it matters. It makes a powerful case that there is something out there… emergent:

Even if Dean fails to capture the Democratic nomination, he has made [internet] technology an integral factor in national campaigns for the foreseeable future. Not since the televised Nixon-Kennedy debates has there been a comparable shift in the art and science of running a campaign.

Take that, horse race. Writing in Ziff Davis’s Baseline magazine, Cone argues that Dean is a big deal whether he or not he prevails in the end. This scrambles the brains of the press in the degree that the press believes its own story— that winning the race is not only the point of a presidential campaign, but also the departure point for reporting on it, the base line for the political story, the thing that’s really real. Winning has for a long time been the “master narrative” of campaign journalism, (I wrote about it here) even though other stories are allowed in.

Without addressing them directly, Cone says: fellow journalists, the art and science of running a campaign are changing before our eyes. Whatever happens in the race, (which could go many ways) there’s the import of what Dean and Company are discovering about the Internet: now. They are showing us how tools developed online can generate action offline, and affect people’s lives— including the nation’s political life. “I’m obsessed with offline,” says Zephyr Teachout, the director of Internet organizing for the Howard Dean presidential campaign. (That’s a switch.) Here’s Cone:

The lessons of the Dean campaign do not just apply to politics. Teachout and her compatriots have laid bare the essential power of the Internet to marketers of all types, from clothing to industrial equipment to financial services.

Cone isn’t a recruit or supporter of Dean’s politically. But I think he is intellectually. He is fascinated by what’s happening, and tries to explain it in “what’s the fuss about” fashion, loosely joining the various pieces together—the Dean weblog, the meet-up method, the fundraising by Net, the local “cells,” the thinking at headquarters, and the difference it could all make. He leaves enough space to let you think it through yourself.

Cone is currently expanding his sense of community (and journalism) at his own site and in his work as a columnist for the Greensboro (NC) News & Record. Meanwhile, he writes about Dean expanding politics with tools and strategies that tap the power of “community,” which here simply means people doing it for themselves because they want to help Dean and participate.

With the Internet, an effective campaign creates a community that will on its own begin to market your product for you. Properly done, you won’t be able – or want — to control it.

One would not want to control it. IMPORTANT IF TRUE. Think what that does to one of the most reliable “laws” of presidential campaigns: that top down control of the message and the operation as a whole is essential, the way the game is played. Think how many news stories have been generated over the years by that thesis. Think of all the “disarray” stories when the operatives at the top lose control or fight over it. There’s a big narrative premise at stake:

The trick is to turn the buyers of a product, concept or candidate into evangelists, willing to take action on their own to spur demand. And the recruitment doesn’t have to cost much.

Willing to take action on their own. This only happens if you don’t control everything.

The payoff is a powerful multiplier effect that turns anyone into a potential campaign worker. It gives Dean a national network of troops on the ground, unpaid but on task. This is the great innovation of the Dean campaign: using the Internet to raise both support and funding, before rivals figure out how to do the same.

As Glenn Reynolds likes to say, read the whole thing and come back for some discussion….

Some discussion: Among his examples, Cone shows Dean supporters in North Carolina using meet-ups to draft handwritten letters they will send to undecided voters in Iowa. Maybe that means nothing to the final result. But it seems to me the Iowa Caucuses, which are one big meet-up, are a pretty good test.

Do powerful Internet tools shrewdly deployed result in turnout offline at a distributed caucus event? The test is not just for Dean. It’s also for the Cone thesis: that there has been a shift in the science and sensibility of campaigning for President. Either we will or we won’t see a different pattern emerging into its own. Either we will or will not observe a “community” dividend on the ground for Dean. I posed this to Cone after I read his article. He e-mailed back:

To the degree that local organizing capabilities matter in the caucus system, Iowa is a great test. But it’s also a limited one, because most states send voters to the polls – so in that sense, New Hampshire and other early states will be more relevant, because they will measure the ability of the Dean campaign to translate the preliminary real-world activities we know it can generate into the ultimate offline activity for any campaign – voting.

“None of this means Dean is going to win,” Cone says back at his weblog. “And none of it can make him win on its own — message, tone, and external factors are critical — but it’s a huge part of his success so far.” I agree with that note of caution. But I bet it won’t stop people from arguing against a claim he does not make: that the Internet campaign will certainly spell the difference next year.

Prepare for the “nothing really new here” articles to come. Prepare for savvy analysts in the press who will be out to de-excite. Prepare for a lot of knowing chuckles the first time the Dean campaign disagrees with the “community” and people get upset. (It will happen.) In general, the press is better at pattern repetition than pattern recognition. But who knows? We may see a split among journalists on the matter of the real story in 2004. Cone has his eye on developments after and in spheres far removed from electoral politics.

E.J. Dionne made a related observation this weekend on CNN’s the “Capital Gang.”

What’s striking me is how similar the Dean campaign is to the Goldwater campaign in the sense that Dean ends up speaking up for all these liberals who feel excluded, left out. The government’s in the hands of the other party. Just like conservatives did when Barry Goldwater ran for president. And he’s created this vast organization, just the way Goldwater did. The good news for Democrats is the Goldwater movement changed the country. The bad news for Democrats is that Barry Goldwater got clobbered in 1964.

Dean may lose, and yet change the Democrats, change the country. In that case, the demand on journalists would be to tell both stories. But they arise from different narratives of political life: community and connection vs. command and control. Ed Cone has written the primer for one. The other story journalists know cold.

For a bigger picture view, read this, from Ryan Lizza of the New Republic, alongside Cone’s exemplary work. Then put the two together. (Thanks to Daily Kos, who adds his own analysis.)

See Dave Winer’s Tips for Candidates re: Weblogs from September 2003

Dan Gilmour’s report from back in August: Dean Campaign’s Net Savvy Shows. See the comments section if you are really interested in the subject.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 18, 2003 11:46 PM