FEBRUARY 16, 2004
BURLINGTON, VERMONT –– “THIS IS THE FUTURE,” says Nicco Mele, a bearded man with rimless glasses who is famous among Howard Dean fans as the campaign’s webmaster. “We’re going to have ten thousand listeners by the end of the week.” It’s the night before Dean will lose all seven February 3 states, and I’m sitting on an overturned recycling bin in a cramped office at Dean headquarters in Burlington. Until recently, this tiny, airless room was used by a field director to organize Dean voters. Still scrawled across a whiteboard on one wall is a message from Iowa or New Hampshire that recalls the bygone era when Joe Trippi was campaign manager and winning seemed not just possible but inevitable: “Trippi wants Kerry 4’s”—a reference to undecided voters targeted by John Kerry.
Now, instead of being used to organize voters, the office has been turned into a makeshift radio studio. Last week, while drinking beers at a T.G.I. Friday’s down the road, Mele and Zephyr Teachout, Dean’s Internet organizer, decided the thing to do in the midst of the Dean implosion was to start a Web- based radio show. Mele and Teachout share a microphone at one brown folding table, while two engineers sit hunched over laptops at another. “Here we go, baby!” says Mele. An engineer begins counting down to the first official broadcast, “Fifteen seconds. Mics are going live!”
In the last week, the Dean campaign has undergone a radical transformation. First, Dean lost New Hampshire. Immediately afterward, he lost his campaign manager. He was forced to defer paychecks for five days and lay off some of the staffers who organized young voters—once a central mission of the campaign. I spent a couple of days at Dean headquarters to get a feel for how the campaign was dealing with this stunning turn of fortune.
Some aides complain privately about the way Trippi’s removal was handled: Senior staffers didn’t have any forewarning and weren’t prepared to deal with the barrage of stories about new campaign “CEO” Roy Neel’s lobbying career. There is still some bitterness toward Kate O’Connor, the longtime Dean aide whom Trippi partisans blame for his ouster. Other staffers blame the media for Dean’s collapse. Aides still complain bitterly about the excessive replaying of the Iowa scream speech. They carp about the lack of scrutiny that Kerry is receiving from the press. One staffer even showed me a computer database of news coverage that can use algorithms to determine the impartiality of particular reporters. “I can do a bias check,” he tells me, showing off the software.
But, despite the complaints, the mood in Burlington is more nostalgic than bitter. Sitting among scattered boxes of DEAN FOR AMERICA T-shirts, listening to Mele and Teachout field phone calls from Deaniacs, I can’t help but think that the Web radio show, which would have seemed like another groundbreaking campaign tactic just a few weeks ago, now seems hopelessly out-of-touch, a sign that the campaign and its followers are becoming further and further isolated from what’s actually happening in the election. Mele tells the audience excitedly, “Wednesday is our one-year anniversary of Meetup”—the website Dean organizers used to create a community of supporters across the country—”Tell us what it was like and how far we’ve come!” A freshman from the University of California at Berkeley calls in to say that he’s “spreading the word” through a local Dean chapter on campus. “How is the club doing?” one of the hosts asks. “We’re growing in numbers. We’ve got about twenty-five members so far,” he replies proudly. A few minutes later, a man named Karl calls in. Karl remembers last year’s Meetup with fondness. “It seems like only yesterday,” he says, reminiscing. “Nobody knew what the heck they were doing.”
All these high-tech innovations—from the Meetups to the Web radio show— were supposed to enable the campaign to bypass the mainstream media. Instead, it seems caught in an echo chamber populated by Dean partisans. Indeed, I meet Karl in person later the same evening: He works in Burlington for the Dean campaign.
Even if tending to the grassroots hasn’t netted Dean much electoral support, though, it does pay the bills. Even now, as Dean loses state after state, his campaign is still raising as much as a quarter of a million dollars per day online. The Internet failed miserably as an organizing tool in Iowa, yet Dean still managed to raise more money after his distant third-place finish there than John Edwards did following his strong second.
THE NEXT DAY, I hang out at Dean headquarters as Tuesday night’s election returns roll in. New boss Neel is appearing on “Hardball,” and aides gather around a television to watch. Despite Trippi’s cult following, Neel seems to have been welcomed with open arms by both Dean’s staff and the Deaniacs who post on the campaign’s blog. Both have been oddly pragmatic about the change. One senior Dean aide told me that Trippi’s managerial skills were so lacking that they needed someone like Neel to implement his vision. The blog embraced Neel on his first day on the job, with some posters welcoming him aboard and requesting he give them their first set of “orders.”
We watch as “Hardball” host Chris Matthews begins pummeling Neel with questions. “Is this an inside job you’re pulling?” he asks. “Because you’re a Washington insider, and you’re running against Washington insiders. It seems like suicide, not a campaign.” Neel stammers that he is “anything but a Washington insider,” but Matthews interrupts him. “Where do you live?” he badgers. “Where do you work?” Neel shoots back, “I’m living in a motel in Burlington, Vermont.” At Dean HQ, the staff cheers.
For the most part, though, the atmosphere on election night is oddly detached, as if everyone were watching a race in which they weren’t actually participating. On a cell phone, an aide talks to a colleague about going to work for the Edwards campaign. Reminding me that the campaign predicted a poor showing, Teachout jokes, “We’re beating expectations.”
Dean didn’t waste much time in the February 3 states, and the campaign couldn’t afford to run TV ads in any of them. Under the radar, Dean was reduced to working talk radio and other free media opportunities to get publicity. One internal campaign memo outlined opportunities for Dean to get his message on the radio. In a section about North Dakota, the memo described how Dean should act on air. The governor, who often bashes right-wing radio hosts and loves a passionate debate, was advised to tone down his act. “The key to successfully using talk radio is to come across as likeable even in the face of an adversarial host,” it said. “It does not pay for Governor Dean to engage in heated arguments with any of them. He should let them have their say.” Echoing Dean’s post-Iowa political repositioning, the memo advised, “When on talk radio Howard Dean should speak through his ‘doctor’ persona—not his political one.” The reason for neutering the governor in this way is that, given his utter lack of paid media, he needs to be invited back on the show, “which—I can’t point out enough—is the goal,” the memo explains.
Neither the political nor doctor persona works on Tuesday. Back in his office, after the “Hardball” appearance, Neel and I watch the election returns. He is oddly calm about the foundering enterprise he now runs. When Karen Hicks, a senior Dean aide who now runs much of the campaign’s day-to-day operation, walks in with a copy of Dean’s speech, Neel asks her, “Did you want me to see it?” He doesn’t bother reading it before she sends it off to Dean.
Despite the disastrous night, he says Dean is sticking to the plan. The campaign will start to do better this weekend in Michigan, Washington, and Maine, and then wait for the alleged showdown with Kerry in Wisconsin on February 17. But there are no promises of victory. Neel says they only have to “do well” in Washington and Maine, and he admits that Michigan is no longer very competitive. “Kerry has a huge lead there,” he concedes. Even in Wisconsin, Neel argues, Dean doesn’t have to win but only “finish a close second.” The strategy seems even more far-fetched now that both John Edwards and Wesley Clark have been strengthened by their wins in South Carolina and Oklahoma, but it’s all Dean has. “We’re going to be written out of the picture tomorrow, but that’s it,” Neel says. “We’ll be coming back, and we’ve got the tools and resources to come back.”
Edwards appears on the television to give his South Carolina victory speech. Neel watches Edwards, his head slumped on his right hand. “He looks good,” Neel drawls. “My ex-wife loves this guy here. ... He’s very appealing. He’s a really nice guy. He came that close to being on the ticket in 2000.”
We walk out of his office and hover over the clot of desks where the Internet team is busy posting to the blog and checking the temperature of the Deaniacs who are commenting online about the night’s bloodbath. Nobody seems dispirited. Neel talks to Teachout about his appearance on her radio show that night and jokes about how his posts are being received by the Deaniacs. He raises his hands in the air and yells, “I want to blog!”
This article appeared in the February 16, 2004 issue of the magazine.