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.”
I said to myself, “Holy crap, it’s an open source campaign!”
A lot of this is nothing new, of course. Dean’s grassroots/outsider campaign has quite a bit in common with John McCain, Ross Perot, John Anderson, and every other outside-the-Beltway insurgent. What he has that others didn’t is not just the technology to harness that energy, but the recognition of its potential and the willingness to use it. That’s pretty impressive. And if the Dean campaign actually pays attention when someone at a Meetup suggests a good idea, well, I can just about guarantee that any Bush supporter below the Pioneer level will never share that experience.
Back in April, I wrote that the existence of a Gary Hart blog was a sure sign that he wouldn’t run for President. Turned out I was right about Hart’s candidacy, but wrong about the likelihood of a serious Presidential candidate maintaining a blog. (In my defense, the official Dean weblog was still a relative newcomer when I wrote that. I just hadn’t really noticed it at the time.) I still think there’s a potential liabilty for a candidate to link to bloggers, but I admit I may have overblown the danger. Dean at least has a disclaimer at the bottom of his page which states that he’s not responsible for someone else’s content. I’m still not convinced that mainstream pundits will be clueful enough to tell the story properly if it ever comes to this, but then I’m just extra cynical these days.
One thing I am curious about is if the Dean campaign can maintain this kind of connection to their base of supporters if and when he achieves frontrunner status among the Democrats. If big money donors start to knock on Dean’s door, will that disaffect the legions of small money loyalists? I don’t know if Dean (or anyone) can keep his little-guy cred if he cozies up to the usual fat cats, and I don’t know if any candidate can run against Bush and his war chest effectively without big money. I can see a parallel between the Dean phenomenon and a successful startup company as it goes through a growth spurt, when the originals start to complain that the place has lost the atmosphere and amenities that attracted them to it in the first place. That doesn’t have to happen, of course, and I think the Dean team is prepared to deal with that. It’ll be interesting to watch, and if they can pull it off, it’ll validate the thesis that this is an actual paradigm shift and not a fluke.