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Dean's Web campaign crashes

It was a sober and subdued Howard Dean who showed up for the Democratic presidential debate here on Thursday night. Two defeats and a shakeup in the campaign's high command can have that effect on anyone _ especially someone who expected to come sailing into the South as the favorite for the nomination.

Instead, that distinction has gone to John Kerry. But the significance of the role reversal extends beyond the altered positions of the two New Englanders, the former governor of Vermont and the senator from Massachusetts.

Dean offered the Democratic Party a different model of organizing, a distinctive approach to political mobilization. Its conspicuous failure in its first road tests in Iowa and New Hampshire carries a message bigger than Dean himself. It brings into question the whole notion that Internet-based populism is the future for the Democratic Party.

The defining difference of the Dean campaign was its combination of the Web-site inventiveness of Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager until a few days ago, with the empowerment theories of Marshall Ganz, the Harvard sociologist who served as the organizational guru for Dean's effort.

It was Ganz who indoctrinated Karen Hicks, Dean's New Hampshire manager, and her counterparts in other states with the belief that decentralized _ not just local, but neighborhood and home-based _ voter contact was the tool that could win the nomination. The idea was to build from the bottom up, using house parties hosted by the first wave of volunteers to involve a few more people in each small town or precinct, then have them do the same thing with their friends _ eventually assembling an army of committed Dean voters.

The candidate did his part by making empowerment the theme of his speeches. "I don't have the power to change Washington or change America," he would say. "You have the power."

Trippi's gift was to grasp that the Internet could be used to link these separate supporters to headquarters and, more important, to each other, so the energy of their individual efforts would be contagious.

It was an ingenious design, and anyone who visited Dean's headquarters in Des Moines or Manchester had to be impressed by two things: the bustle and activity of the volunteers and the sophistication of the computer system that tracked their work, right down to the guest lists for every house party in the state.

It worked like a dream through 2003, and the small contributions came flowing in as more and more names went into the computers. But when the contest got real, when Dean's opponents began questioning his presidential credentials and when some of his misstatements fueled voters' doubts, this highly decentralized campaign structure faltered.

It had struck me that what Dean and Ganz and Trippi had created was really a contemporary version of the "O'Brien Manual," the organizing bible that Larry O'Brien wrote for John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign. O'Brien used the model of Kennedy's Senate campaigns, where the women in his large family hosted tea parties to recruit volunteers, who then were asked to invite their friends to help out in the effort. "You just keep enlarging the circle," O'Brien said, "and as soon as someone volunteers, you give her an assignment."

What I forgot _ and I suspect the Dean folks did, as well _ is that behind this seemingly spontaneous grass-roots effort was the wealth of Joseph P. Kennedy and the iron discipline of Robert F. Kennedy, his brother's campaign manager. When it was time to get tough in the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries, the muscle was applied.

In the wake of Iowa and New Hampshire, Dean has abandoned all pretense of a decentralized campaign. Trippi was demoted and resigned. Roy Neel, the longtime Al Gore aide who is now in charge, told the Washington Post that Trippi had "an extraordinary vision in organization and message," while "mine is more about helping bring discipline and focus to an organization, particularly an organization that is under a great deal of stress right now."

One symptom of the indiscipline of the earlier regime was the reckless dissipation of the record $41-million Dean raised during 2003, leaving him without TV money for Tuesday's seven-state primaries and caucuses.

Some may remember that on the day of the New Hampshire primary in 1980, Ronald Reagan fired John Sears as his campaign manager and brought in veteran Bill Casey (later the CIA chief) to replace him. Sears, like Trippi, had clashed with some members of the candidate's home state inner circle and had allowed spending to get out of control. So out he went.

The difference is that Reagan won New Hampshire. Dean was not that lucky.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group