Dean.com

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"Witches," says Joe Trippi. "And it pisses me off because they have
people all over the world." Trippi, the fiery campaign manager for
Howard Dean, is talking about Meetup.com, the year-old Internet
service created to facilitate gatherings of people who share common
interestseverything from knitting to Wiccathat is now the primary
grassroots organizing tool for Dean. Trippi obsessively tracks the
latest Meetup figures, and he has just learned that the number of
registered Dean supporters has surpassed 25,000, far more than the
next largest Meetup group, witches, who trail Dean by 10,000 but
whose stats still irk Trippi a little bit. "They get their numbers
all revved up because they get lots of people in London and Paris
or whatever."When it comes to the Internet, no detail is too small for Trippi.
Some campaign managers devote their energies to working the elite
press or courting union leaders or wooing donors. But Trippi seems
to spend an inordinate amount of his time checking Meetup numbers,
posting to liberal blogs, sending text messages to supporters who
have signed up for the Dean wireless network, and otherwise
devising ways to use the Internet to build what Trippi envisions as
"the largest grassroots organization in the history of this party."
And his efforts might actually be paying off: While many predicted
that Dean would fade away once the war was no longer a salient
issue, there is little evidence that the former Vermont governor's
supportersoriginally drawn to Dean when he was forcefully speaking
out against war in Iraqare deserting him. In fact, the Internet
might account for Dean's staying power.

For the Dean campaign, it all started with the Meetup phenomenon.
Back in January, the campaign stumbled upon the Meetup website and
noticed that 432 people were signed up for a Howard Dean Meetup
group. "We didn't really know what it was," says Trippi. He watched
from afar as Dean's Meetup numbers grew to more than 2,600 in
February. In March, Dean showed up at a Meetup event in New York
City. It was so crowded that hundreds of young supporters were
pouring out onto the sidewalk waiting to get in. Soon the campaign
began receiving mysterious donations with an extra cent added. They
learned that the Meetup community intended to raise $1 million for
Dean, and the extra cent was being used to identify the donations.
It became known as the Meetup Million Dollar Challenge and has
raised at least $300,000 for Dean so far (close to 10 percent of
what Dean had raised overall, as of April). Almost overnight, Meetup
had become the Dean campaign's most important organizing tool.

Other innovationswireless communications, HowardDean.tv (a website
that runs streaming video of Dean speeches and events), a network
of rapid-response bloggershave followed, and Trippi is now doing
more with the Internet than any other presidential campaign. Aides
to some of the other 2004 Democratic candidates regard Trippi, who
was born in Silicon Valley and has spent the last few years working
for high-tech companies, as a bit of an eccentric who wastes
precious campaign time e-mailing obscure bloggers and hanging out
with political oddballs at the monthly Dean Meetups. "Some of these
Meetup events look like the bar scene from Star Wars," says an
adviser to one Dean rival.

But Trippi believes others will one day understand the brilliance of
his plan. Consider the Meetups: Once a month, thousands of
self-organized Dean supporters across the country get together at
coffee shops and bars to discuss their candidate and ways they can
help his campaign. This ability to get people to meetings, Trippi
says, bodes well for Dean in the Iowa caucuses. "What do you do in
a caucus?" he asks. "You go to a meeting." And Trippi has plans
beyond the caucuses and primaries. He speaks of using Meetup and
other Web tools to build a million-person-strong network of small
donors who could raise the cash needed to take on President Bush.
"There's only one way you could ever get to a million people in
this country," he says before pausing dramatically. "That's the
Internet."

One of the most important online vehicles for the Dean campaign is
blogs. Just as President Bush has wooed conservative talk-show
hosts, holding a special day for them at the White House, Dean is
the first candidate to treat relatively unknown bloggers as a
critical opinion-making constituency. "We understand the blogging
community and have been active in it," says Trippi. "A lot more
people are seeing us on the blogs and other sites every day than on
TV at this point in the campaign." Forget CW-shapers like David
Broder. Trippi spends his time reaching out to people like Ezra
Klein. Klein, who was an ardent Gary Hart supporter, is a student
at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with his own political
blog. Ever since Hart decided not to run, Trippi has been trying to
win over Klein and other Hart Internet activists. The Dean campaign
immediately sent out a press release praising Hart after his
announcement. "The fact that we really meant it matters to folks
like Ezra Klein," says Trippi.

No liberal-leaning blogger seems to escape Trippi's attention. He
recommends that I check out a blog called Daily Kos. "He's a Wesley
Clark guy," says Trippi, adding hopefully, "I think his second
choice is Dean." Last week, Dean even gave his first exclusive
interview to a blogger, a rather well-done exchange via e-mail by
the anonymous author of the blog LiberalOasis. The Dean campaign
itself has an official blog that includes dispatches from the road,
and Trippi also posts regularly to Dean2004.blogspot.com, an
unofficial Dean blog that has become a hub of Internet organizing
for the campaign.

Anyone who writes critically about Dean can expect his copy to be
chewed up by this army of zealous Dean Internet scribes. When I
wrote a piece recently that contained a few paragraphs about Dean,
a member of the Dean2004 blog team filed an almost 2,000-word entry
slicing my article up into sections with labels such as "true,"
"false," "inadvertently true," and "foolish." Not content with
this, the Dean blogosphere recently established a rapid-reaction
team called the Dean Defense Forces (DDF)an e-mail list of hard-core
Dean supporters who swiftly push back with e-mails, letters to the
editor, blog entries, and phone calls against anyone spreading
anti-Dean sentiments. "When he gets attacked, we'll respond,"
pledges the DDF's organizer, Matthew Singer, a 20-year-old college
student in Montana who once blogged about Dean on his own site,
Left in the West.

The DDF's first mission came last week when the Democratic
Leadership Council (DLC) penned a memo condemning Dean for
pandering to the liberal base of the Democratic Party. Trippi
immediately responded with an e-mail activating the Dean network,
and instantly the DDF and hundreds of other Dean fedayeen flooded
the DLC with e-mails and phone calls. The Dean campaign later
proudly posted 871 pages of correspondence that were sent, most of
which took exception to the DLC's characterization of Dean as
left-wing and his supporters as "activist elites." Dean himself
cannily seized on the spat with the Beltway think tank to emphasize
his outsider credentials. He also dug up old DLC quotes praising
his moderate record as governor and tapped centrists, such as Jim
Jeffords and Representative Zoe Lofgren, to vouch for his New
Democratic credentials. By the end of the week, Singer sent out an
e-mail to the DDF army declaring, "[O]ur first real campaign was a
success."

The last presidential campaign that was this evangelical about the
power of the Internet to raise money and build a grassroots
constituency of new voters was John McCain's. After McCain won New
Hampshire in 2000, he raised millions of dollars and signed up tens
of thousands of supporters through his website in just a few days.
But, by then, it was too late to make a difference. Trippi has
studied the McCain phenomenon closely. The Dean campaign claims it
already has an internal list of contributors or volunteers twice
the size of the 25,000 supporters on Meetup. "We're at fifty
thousand today," Trippi says. "We're ten thousand more than McCain
was after he won New Hampshire, and this is eight months before
Iowa or New Hampshire. It's not like it's standing still. We keep
growing every day."

On the campaign's unofficial blog, Trippi recently posted a long,
inspirational missive to Dean's followers about a confluence of
forces he dramatically calls "the perfect storm" that will carry
Dean to victory. Previously, Trippi argues, the Internet was not
yet mature enough for any campaign to maximize its potential. Even
in 2000, voters weren't as comfortable as they are today using
their credit cards online, and the blogosphere was still in its
infancy. And the McCain campaign wasn't prepared to capitalize on
the Internet windfall when it occurred. Now, capitalizing on such a
windfall is the basis for Dean's entire strategy.

Not surprisingly, the other force Trippi sees as essential to the
project is the Dean persona. It's a clich to compare Dean to
McCain, but so far he's the only candidate in the race around whom
a mass personality cult has formed. (How many people do you think
would log on to watch DickGephardt.tv?) For months, Dean has argued
that his supporters are responding to his personality and style,
not just his antiwar position. That's starting to look more and more
true. Of the hundreds of e-mails the DDF sent to the DLC, very few
mentioned the war. To the extent any of them dealt with issues,
they defended Dean as a New Democrat- style centrist. But most were
nonideological, simply praising Dean for his passion and ability to
bring independents and nonvoters into politics. "The only
successful DLC candidate, Bill Clinton, succeeded not because of
his policies but because of personality," wrote one Dean backer.
"Dean is [a] real possibility for attracting people who were turned
off by Gore's wishy-washy personality," said another. "Americans
elected Bush based on who he was as a person far more that what his
positions were."

The cult of Dean doesn't seem to be going away. His followers
download and listen to the Dean dance mix, a collection of Dean's
one-liners set to techno music. They stay in touch with text
messages beamed to their cell phones. They attend their monthly
Meetup gatherings in growing numbers. They fill Dean events with
more bodies than any of the other candidates' supporters (1,200
showed up at a Seattle speech recently). They launch coordinated
attacks on Dean critics. And they blog and blog and blog about the
power of Dean's message. Maybe it's all a big waste of time, but
Trippi doesn't think so. "In the way TV changed politics and took
it away from the grassroots," he says with fervor, "the Internet is
going to give it back.

By Ryan Lizza

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