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February 7, 2004

Voices at the Crash Site Say the Frontrunner Was Never Ahead

The Howard Dean crash site has been visited a lot already. Writers on the Net are starting to struggle over their interpretations, including the role of the Net in Dean's crash. But the press suffered a crash too. Where do we locate that site?

“Even though we looked like an 800-pound gorilla, we were still growing up,” a senior campaign aide said. “We were like the big lanky teenager that looked like a grown man.” —Jody Wilgoren and Jim Rutenberg, “Missteps Pulled a Surging Dean Back to Earth,” New York Times, Feb. 1, 2004.

For his efforts to puzzle through what went wrong in the Dean movement, a gold star to my colleague at NYU, Clay Shirky. His latest analysis, “Exiting Deanspace,” is the most fluid and convincing I have seen. Shirky writes about software and how people use it. Like others, he is interested in the Net effect, and why it did not develop into votes. So his piece is not only “what went wrong for Dean and his supporters?” but also “how was it concealed from view?”

He freely admits he was fooled by appearances, along with many others impressed by Dean and the political discoveries of his people. (I include myself.) And for two weeks after the crash, the world of appearances was still fooling Shirky. It led him to a question that misled: “how could such a successful campaign suddenly do so badly?” This assumes a reversal of fortune— from high flyer to dead in the water.

But maybe Dean never flew, and there was no crash. This is Shirky’s idea. “Dean’s campaign was never actually successful,” he writes, laying out the “mirage” thesis.

It did many of the things successful campaigns do, of course — got press and raised money and excited people and even got potential voters to aver to campaign workers and pollsters that they would vote for him when the time came. When the time came, however, they didn’t. The campaign never succeeded at making Howard Dean the first choice of any group of voters he faced, and it seems unlikely to do so today.

Supporters of Dean lived in a bubble of expectations. And Shirky believes that “the way the campaign was organized helped inflate and sustain that bubble of belief, right up to the moment that the voters arrived.” Dean was never ahead, except in the heads of people misreading the election and misinterpreting progress in technology.

“So how did this collective delusion of Dean’s front-runner-hood happen?” Shirky asks, being himself a participant. “And what if anything did the use of the Internet contribute to it?” A lot rides on that question. David Weinberger, a Dean supporter, writer and occasional consultant: “That the Internet helped fuel the delusional belief seems undeniable to me. How it fueled it Clay lays out beautifully. How much it fueled it is much harder to figure out, and is deeply important because if we get it wrong, we will set false assumptions about what the Net is good for in political campaigns.”

Their point, I believe, is that political writers, Net thinkers, insiders, journalists, and campaign participants should sift carefully through the Dean crash (if it was that) because the lessons of this episode will figure in the next. I expect a lot of that will go on at the O’Reilly Digital Democracy Teach-In coming up (Feb. 9) in San Diego, where Joe Trippi will keynote. (Speakers include the founders, Joi Ito, Mitch Ratcliffe, Doc Searls, Halley Suitt, Ed Cone, Dave Weinberger, Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen.)

Shirky thinks Dean “accidentally created a movement instead of a campaign.” The movement seemed huge because Net advances had dramatically lowered the “coordination costs” for like-minded people to come together. (Just as locating small donors had become easier if you knew how to do it.) The passionate believers in Dean could now find each other way more efficiently, and this gave the movement its social momentum.

But it was a misleading sign. “Fervor isn’t votes,” Shirky writes, aware that he is stating the obvious. Momentum and effort and activity aren’t votes, either. Money isn’t votes. And given the potency of the new organizing tools, a successful movement, with lots of activity, may actually obscure a campaign that is failing with voters:

The easy thing to explain is why Dean lost – the voters didn’t like him. The hard thing to explain is why we (and why Dean himself) thought he’d win, and easily at that. The bubble of belief, which collapsed so quickly and so completely, was inflated by tools that made formerly hard things easy, tricking us into thinking that getting votes had become easy as well… It was also inflated by our desire to see someone get it right, a fact that made us misunderstand the facts on the ground.

It can be difficult to admit your desire got in the way of a cooler analysis, which turned out to be right. But then activating people’s desire for a smarter and better politics was one of the things Dean did well. “My theory about Dean’s demise,” writes Stephen Johnson, author of Emergence. “He got fewer votes than the other guys.” He explains:

The Dean campaign’s use of the internet has forever changed the way that candidates 1) organize their supporters, and 2) raise their money. But I would argue that it has had almost no effect—and probably will continue to have little to no effect—on the way ordinary voters ultimately decide who to vote for. That decision is still largely made via face-to-face inspection, where possible, and then via television, where you get an approximation, however filtered, of that face-to-face encounter.

One way to be right about what the Internet can do is to lower your expectations. Weblogger Jeff Jarvis, also a journalist and Internet division head for the Newhouse empire, was quoted in Salon on this theme. “We all learned lessons in Iowa,” he said. “Howard Dean learned the biggest one — stop being an asshole. We learned about the insular nature of this medium. We learned not to blow up the bubble, not to put too much emphasis on what this thing can do. It can do miraculous, wonderful things, but it can’t win an election. It can change the world, but it can’t win an election.”

Scott Rosenberg of Salon, a journalist who has written on the politics of technology, said the Dean campaign did change the world in one big way:

Internet enthusiasts had long theorized that the Net could help route around the broadcast media’s headlock on both the electoral process and the broader definition of the acceptable boundaries of political discourse; Dean and his supporters made it happen. Whether Dean’s campaign somehow manages a comeback or, more likely, fades in coming weeks is utterly irrelevant to this accomplishment.

Former political reporter for the New York Times, former host of The Connection on Boston public radio, former mayoral candidate, and current audio blogger Chris Lydon develops the same point: Dean was a challenge to major institutions in the news media, even though he was not competing for their position:

His first contribution was simply to sound an anti-war alarm that institutional media had muffled. Millions of people knew intuitively that his warning was wise; millions more know it now. He began with a bold exercise in definition—a job of critical journalism that our big media don’t perform these days. In large dimensions and small (like his chippy defiance of Tim Russert), Dean’s campaign was a critique of the somnolent self-satisfaction that runs through our housecat press. And people loved him for it.”

Here is where I pick up the thread. The self-satisfaction begins in the press’s claim to have mastered presidential campaigns, in the sense of knowing how the system works, “what it takes” to get elected. Journalists see themselves as political realists who don’t have a horse in the race. They tend to identify with those who have a disciplined, professional interest in campaigning— and lots of inside knowledge to share. Psychologically, this puts them closer to the professionals they write about than the public, whose bombardment by message the professionals are busy planning.

That’s how political consultants became media stars. When you look at elections and see a horse race, you also see a consultant, handler, manager, or pollster as rich in the sort of knowledge you need to understand what’s going in this election cycle. But it is only professionals who live elections as “cycles.”

Common experience isn’t like that. By absorbing, broadcasting and recycling the political insider’s take on things, journalists have taught themselves to look at the public as a semi-predictable mass of potentially swayable voters, who will respond to the right message. Drip by drip, drop by drop, this acidic way of understanding people begins to influence the journalism you give them.

Strange information loops result. The public is told how the candidates plan to position themselves (“He’s running as…”) News stories appear about candidates trying to influence news stories about candidates because newsy expectations in Iowa are themselves making news in Iowa. Things like that.

Insiders can explain this (sometimes absurd) world best because they make their living from trying to win in it. Journalists, who are making a living at this too, have to report the race. The two groups understand each other, need each other, and see each other on the campaign trail. They know how to work together to glamorize inside knowledge without conspiring to do so. Maybe it’s simpler. They have drinks together, and talk politics. It has an effect.

The national press has claimed mastery of the presidential campaign, not because it knows all, but because it knows—and it quotes—the people who really do know politics, from the inside. These are the pros. The rest of its knowledge comes from trooping to New Hampshire and Iowa and other places the candidates are found to see them live and watch them interact. Inside Baseball and Boys on the Bus: the self-satisfaction Lydon writes about is partly a complacency about these two knowledge streams.

“In other words, just about everything you heard and read about the Iowa caucuses in November and December was wrong.” Howard Kurtz, a brand name journalist, wrote that in the Washington Post. It’s a stark statement of failure from inside the citadel of the press. If almost everything done by journalists in Iowa was wrong, then it must have something to do with their knowledge—the instruments for grasping reality in journalism—and not just the facts.

William Powers, press critic for the National Journal and another Washington journalist, adds to Kurtz’s charge:

The media appear clueless and insecure, unable to decide what matters most, or should matter, about any given candidate. His policy positions? His legislative achievements? His polls? How much money he raises and from whom? His childhood? His temperament? His marriage? His Botox rumors? The odd sounds he makes at pep rallies?

Powers thinks this cluelessness (a theme I also developed) has causes: the two knowledge streams the press favors. One is traditional: trailing the candidates around. “Watch Candidate X as he bounds into the requisite greasy spoon, shakes the requisite hands, and makes the requisite small talk about the requisite big issues,” he writes.

At the other, postmodern extreme is a different kind of journalism entirely: the dark inside knowledge that all top-flight political reporters possess about how presidential campaigns really work. Based largely on the media’s running conversation with pollsters, consultants, campaign managers, and other hardened political pros, this macro-level strategic coverage has effectively opened up the smoke-filled rooms of old and let the rest of us see what goes on in there.

Both methods—going out with the candidates, tuning into the mechanics—have their virtues, he says. At times they go well together and increase our understanding. But neither approaches the mystery point in politics, the alchemy between people and pol in “that very public space where candidates go to connect with the mass of voters.” (Note that if the real election story happens here, it is not an “inside” story.)

Although it has other stages, this “very public space” is largely the space of the media. “There’s no Nielsen system for tracking the day-to-day media performance of candidates, no reliable way of knowing how each of them is registering at any given moment in the brains and emotions of the voting 100 million, ” Powers writes. “The closest approximation is the polls, and we know how reliable those are.”

Yes, we do. The national press lives in a bubble of expectations too, and it did in Iowa. It has its own aging “software”—the horse race, inside baseball, the boys and girls on the bus, spin alley, polls upon tracking polls, the money race, the endorsement derby, the Russert primary, the expectations game, the gotcha question, “he’s running as…”—all designed to take the mystery out of campaign politics, to smooth it out, make it more predictable and thus reportable with existing tools. And with ideas carried over from previous campaigns going back at least to 1976 and Jimmy Carter’s surprise in Iowa.

But the journalist’s software (I also call it press think) sent all the wrong signals, and this led to system failure. The master narrative flunked its Iowa test. Everything you heard and read from us was wrong, said Howard Kurtz on January 19. (“The Pundits Blow It.”) Shirky wrote of the Deaniacs: “The way the campaign was organized helped inflate and sustain that bubble of belief, right up to the moment that the voters arrived.” And the way campaign coverage was organized helped inflate and sustain a news bubble that lasted the same length of time. Clearly, the two bubbles influenced each other.

The press bubble was blown around the figure, “front runner in Iowa and New Hampshire,” a narrative device activated by Dean’s poll numbers and bank account. The idea of always having a frontrunner is software— a kind of weekly planner for the press. But frontrunner also organizes the story overall. The other candidates fall in place behind Mr. Front, and their roles can then be cast.

If the frontrunner is big news for a while, then frontrunner stumbles becomes an irresistable storyline. For that’s bigger news. Not only do we get this every four years; we get the savvy predictions that we’ll get it, as if the turn in the story (the frontrunner’s fall) already existed and was merely awaiting the contingent facts.

This is the inflate-to-deflate cycle that is now apparent to all as a perversity of campaign coverage. Candidates talk ruefully about “being labled the frontunner” because they know how deadly the construction can be. Powers is right to call this a post-modern moment. But it’s also one of those times in politics when words are deeds, and it is journalists doing them.

And that’s how we got a front runner who was never ahead.

Other Voices at the Crash Site

Dave Winer, “Howard Dean is not a Soap Bar:”

He did raise a lot of money on the Internet, and that’s interesting, for sure, and he taught us so much, and if he had gone all the way, I believe he would have survived the onslaught of CNN, ABC and NBC, who were his real competitors, not the other candidates for the Democratic nomination…The Dean campaign taught us that you can’t use the Internet to launch into a successful television campaign to win primaries. By raising money to run ads you play into the gatekeepers, who for obvious financial reasons, have a lot at stake in the money continuing to flow through their bank accounts. At some point he wouldn’t need them. If Dean didn’t get it, they did. So they proved that in 2004 at least, they still get a veto on who runs for President. To Blitzer, Sawyer and Russert, to Viacom, GE, Time-Warner and Disney, Kerry seems safe, but Dean is dangerous, he routes around them, he goes direct.

In “The Counter-Revolution Has Been Televised” John Perry Barlow writes:

It may be that, once again, we have met the enemy and he is us. By pre-announcing the possibility that this might be The Internet Election, we issued fair warning both to the traditional media and the big money politicos that a threat was at hand.

If Dean could actually raise enough money online to match in aggregate the much larger and fewer donations Bush has bought from the plutocrats with his tax cuts, it would shake the system to its rotten core. Worse, if information from the Web and the Blogosphere were to start defining enough personal realities to contest the great mass of tube-zombies at the polls, the gazillions presently spent on television campaign ads would start to wither. An enormous amount of power and money might be at stake. had them worried too.

Doc Searls uses a conversation with a friend to observe as follows:

There is an enormous resolve out there to recall George W. Bush… neither the voters nor the democratic machine cares as much about who started the recall as they do about the recall itself — just like we saw here in California, where the recall started by Ron Unz was finished by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This indeed makes the primaries a referendum on electability. These voters are realists. Some of them use the Net, but all of them watch TV. If the TV wants to put Kerry in the ring, then Kerry’s the man, for better or worse.

If the counter-revolution will be televised, these voters say, then the revolution will be televised too. The job now is to get Kerry in condition.

Anyway, I kinda nodded along with all of this. It made sense to me. But the Net is still there, connecting voters in more ways than ever. And connecting governance as well.

The Net is the people’s medium. It’s where understanding is produced as well as consumed. In the long run the Net, and the people who use it best, will win.

I just hope I live to see it.

CalPundit: “this time I think the internet enthusiasts are being too hard on themselves.”

Look at what the internet accomplished for Howard Dean: it raised a ton of money and generated loads of activist enthusiasm, which in turn bought a huge ground staff, encouraged endorsements from two of the biggest unions around, allowed the campaign to saturate the airwaves with advertising, boosted him to #1 in the polls, and helped fund a 50-state organization that was the envy of every other candidate.

In other words, the internet was instrumental in helping build all the traditional mechanisms that elect a candidate. The fact that it still didn’t work just means that the candidate wasn’t good enough. After all, Phil Gramm raised a boatload of money in 1996 and then disappeared without a trace. It happens.

Mitch Ratcliffe: “Dean grossly underestimated the role voters want to play in this campaign and we hear it each time he urges people to “join me” or “join us” to create institutional change. Voters want to lead this change, not follow. The “I have a scream speech” showed that he was willing to ignore most of America; it is the fact that he didn’t turn his attention to the national audience when he had it—when he could speak to ordinary Americans—that betrays a failure of imagination.”

Joseph Menn, “Dean Backers Debate Internet ‘Echo Chamber.’” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 7.

Ed Cone: “From where I’m sitting, the Internet aspects were the things Dean’s campaign got right. Figuring out how to translate that organizational and financial strength into success in the field was the problem.”

Michael Cudahy and Jock Gill at Greater Democracy: “Mesmerized by their own Internet magic , the Dean organization, on the other hand, appeared to forget that politics is about listening — in diners and church basements — to the concerns and ambitions of real people. Excited by the virtual conversations on their Internet blog, the Dean campaign failed to appreciate the critical role of effective, local organizing.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at February 7, 2004 1:33 AM