WHY CAN'T THE GOP CATCH UP?
Behind Dean Surge:
A Gang of Bloggers
Young, Techie Devotees Flock
To Democratic Candidate
And Build an Online Army
By JEANNE CUMMINGS
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Two years ago, Joe Trippi was a burned-out Democratic operative who had fled Washington for California. Working as a marketing consultant for dot-coms, he was awed to learn how millions of computer whizzes had designed the Linux operating system through a free-form grass-roots collaboration and taken on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows. He wondered if a political campaign could work the same way.
Today he is managing Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean's campaign and he's stopped wondering. The former Vermont governor is using the Internet to transform political fund raising. About half of the campaign's $25 million take so far was raised over the Web, mostly in small donations -- a funding base the Democratic Party all but abandoned in recent decades.
Mr. Dean's Internet-fueled rise from backbencher to front-runner is a story of desperation, risk and luck. "This thing kind of evolved because of the Internet community, not us," Mr. Dean said in an interview. "The community taught us."
Politicians have been mining cash from cyberspace since 1996, when Bob Dole blurted out an incorrect home-page address while debating Bill Clinton. Despite the goof, the site raked in $200,000 overnight. Two years later, the Internet helped Jesse Ventura fund and promote his bid to become Minnesota's governor. In 2000, John McCain got a two-day, $2 million windfall in Web donations after beating George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary. Mr. Dean's Internet donations have propelled him way ahead of his rivals; in all, he has collected about $5 million more than the second-place Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, whose fund-raising pace slowed as Mr. Dean's accelerated. Everyone else is $10 million or more behind.
"Jesse Ventura was the hop. John McCain was the skip. And Howard Dean is the quantum leap," says Michael Cornfield of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.
During his California exile, Mr. Trippi couldn't completely disengage from Washington and got addicted to political "blogs." Blogs are Web soapboxes where hosts post news and opinions and readers respond, often rapidly. The effect is a never-ending virtual town-hall meeting.
Last fall, Mr. Trippi was lured back East to run the Dean campaign. Mr. Dean had become the party's most outspoken critic of the war with Iraq, and crowds flocked to his events. But by January, the campaign had just $157,000.
"We will never have any money," the governor complained, according to Mr. Trippi.
"We have to use the Internet" to build a base, Mr. Trippi responded.
Mr. Dean understood the concept, but the details escaped him. "What's a blog?" he asked.
At the time, the blog buzz about Mr. Dean was growing, and William Finkel saw a business opportunity. Mr. Finkel, 24, had just joined New York-based Meetup Inc., which sets up gatherings for people with common interests in bars and restaurants that pay fees to have business steered their way. The company, which started last spring and expects soon to turn a profit, had focused on nonpolitical get-togethers, soliciting names of, say, breast-cancer survivors, sorting them by zip code and setting up local "meetups" for them.
On Jan. 10, Meetup initiated gatherings focused on the three Democratic presidential contenders whom Mr. Finkel felt had Internet drawing power: North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Sen. Kerry and Mr. Dean. Within a day, 150 people had signed up for each of the two senators. More than 400 registered for Mr. Dean.
The response was helped by a Dean devotee in Oregon, Jerome Armstrong, a graduate student who promoted Meetup's Dean invitation on his blog, "MyDD," for "my due diligence." MyDD, as it happened, was one of Mr. Trippi's favorites and he had debated Mr. Armstrong via e-mail about an Internet-based presidential campaign. Mr. Armstrong figured Meetup could help Mr. Dean and urged Mr. Trippi to hire the company. On Jan. 27 he did, bargaining the company's proposed monthly fee down to $2,200 from $10,000. The deal allowed the campaign to sponsor its own meetups and, most important, collect e-mails from anyone who expressed interest.
A couple of weeks later, Melanie Choukas-Bradley, a 51-year-old environmental writer in rural Maryland, bought a $50 ticket for a Dean fund-raiser in Washington, at the suggestion of friends from Vermont. She had been fuming over the impending war and the Democrats' meek opposition to President Bush. The campaign asked for her e-mail address, as it did with every prospective supporter. This would become key to its fund-raising success as the campaign's list of 8,000 addresses grew.
On March 5, the campaign held its first official meetup in New York. The Essex Restaurant was told to prepare for 200 people, but 500 mobbed it, with more in a line outside. Mr. Dean emerged from his taxi and froze. "I was just shocked, stunned," he recalls. "I didn't understand the implications of [the meetups]. Trippi understood it immediately."
The campaign still lacked money or manpower and had only one Internet expert. But virtual-world supporters soon showed up on the campaign's real-world doorstep.
Mathew Gross, a 31-year-old environmental activist living in Moab, Utah, had been praising Mr. Dean on blogs for months. In March, he quit his job serving burritos and flew east to join the Dean campaign -- without calling ahead.
After stopping to buy a $10 tie, he took a cheap motel room in Burlington, near campaign headquarters. On his first day as a volunteer, he stuffed envelopes. That night he stayed up late writing a memo on the importance of blogs. The next morning, he marched toward Mr. Trippi's office to deliver it, pausing at the door just long enough for senior aides to start escorting him away. Mr. Gross threw the memo toward the boss. "I write on MyDD!" he shouted, guessing Mr. Trippi would understand.
Mr. Trippi's head shot up. "You're hired!" he yelled back.
The new hire's first assignment: create a campaign blog. That took a week and it wasn't fancy -- readers couldn't directly post comments yet -- but it was the first official campaign blog in presidential election history.
Like most campaign Web sites, Mr. Dean's had a donation mechanism. Four days before the first financial quarter ended on March 31, the finance team sent a sheepish appeal for money to the 25,000 people now on the campaign's e-mail list. Mr. Trippi was astounded when about $83,000 arrived via the Web on the last day. He wondered if aggressively soliciting money over the Internet could yield more.
In May, Mr. Trippi enlisted another Web phenomenon: MoveOn.org, a nonprofit liberal group. Wes Boyd, an Internet entrepreneur, started the site to oppose Bill Clinton's impeachment, e-mailing a petition to 50 friends and relatives that said: Censure President Clinton and move on. Within three weeks, 250,000 people had signed on. Since then, MoveOn has expanded its activism. Last December, Mr. Boyd e-mailed MoveOn's members seeking donations for a $40,000 antiwar ad in the New York Times. In two days, he had enough. The lesson: People donate if they see quick results.
Mr. Boyd offered MoveOn's expertise to all the Democratic contenders. Only the Dean campaign accepted, paying MoveOn employee Zack Exley's salary for two weeks. Mr. Exley, 33, made the Dean Web site more user-friendly and preached about e-mail's organizing and fund-raising power.
The advice took hold. In June, the campaign launched its first serious Internet fund-raising effort. Nine days before the second quarter closed on June 30 -- a key moment for measuring each presidential contender's viability -- Mr. Trippi appealed to everyone on the campaign's e-mail list. The list now had 150,000 addresses, thanks in part to the Meetup deal.
In Maryland, Ms. Choukas-Bradley settled into her home office overlooking an herb garden, opened the e-mail and immediately responded with a $50 contribution -- the second Web credit-card transaction of her life, the first being a donation to MoveOn's antiwar ad.
"I wanted to support Howard Dean, but I [also] wanted to show all the Democrats that this is a tool they can use," she says.
Within days, tens of thousands of donors had together given nearly $3 million, doubling the campaign's second-quarter take.
On June 28, top Dean staffers met in the storage closet that served as the Internet team's office. They decided to make another online appeal by announcing that the campaign had raised $6 million but wanted $500,000 more for a show of strength.
To encourage giving, they wanted a distinctive image to measure contributions for the Web site, rejecting the timeworn thermometer. Larry Biddle, Mr. Dean's deputy finance director and a New York Yankees fan, suggested a slugger holding a baseball bat and pointing to the outfield fence a la Babe Ruth. Nicco Mele, the campaign's new Webmaster, launched the appeal at 3 a.m. on Sunday, June 29.
It was a bold step. Campaigns rarely disclose fund-raising goals, lest they fall short. And Mr. Trippi authorized the move without telling the boss.
Mr. Dean logged onto his home page from a Seattle hotel and panicked, thinking unauthorized information had been put on his site. "We've been hacked," Mr. Dean told Mr. Trippi on the phone. Mr. Trippi assured him that the site was secure and that he really had raised $6 million.
Mr. Dean approved an e-mail appeal to go out under his own name. "We now have the opportunity to truly shock the press and the pundits," it said.
A gusher ensued -- $303,000 on that Sunday alone. At one point, the campaign's blog crashed as supporters egged each other on. "Wow! Keep on giving -- we'll need it to defeat Bush's corporate money machine," posted one supporter. The campaign's second-quarter take soared to $7.6 million. Mr. Dean, until then a sideshow, became a major force -- and political fund-raising entered a new era.
In 1972, Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern was the first national candidate to raise lots of small donations using direct mail. Efficiency soared: Banquet events raise as little as 30 cents per dollar donated, while direct mail can net 75 cents. Republicans soon mastered the art and long have dominated the Democrats in small donations through superior mailing lists. Today the Democratic National Committee's list has 800,000 addresses, while the Republican National Committee has two million.
Internet fund raising is even more efficient, netting at least 95 cents for every dollar given and broadening a campaign's small-donor base. Nearly half of Mr. Dean's six-month take of $10.5 million came from donations of less than $200. The four other top Democratic fund-raisers -- each had raised at least $7 million -- got no more than 13% of their totals from small donors. President Bush, the king of high-dollar fund raising, received 9% from small donors.
Other candidates began emulating Mr. Dean's techniques. Sen. Kerry used the image of a hammer on his homepage to call for donations. Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt's site urged supporters to prove that Mr. Dean wasn't alone in cyberspace. Even the Bush campaign imitated Mr. Dean, unveiling a blog.
By mid-summer, the Dean campaign had enough money to replace its lone Internet server with three better ones. The Dean blog was upgraded and came alive. The Web team grew to 12, including Mr. Armstrong, the Oregon man who used his MyDD blog to promote a Dean meetup. When Dean headquarters moved, the Web group got prime space outside Mr. Trippi's office.
In July, an image of Mr. Dean eating a turkey sandwich encouraged supporters to donate $250,000 in three days to match a big-donor dinner by Vice President Dick Cheney. They gave $500,000, including $35 from Ms. Choukas-Bradley, who thought the food contrast was hilarious and e-mailed 20 friends about it. In August, the campaign successfully asked for $1 million in four days to match an Oregon event by President Bush. While the money poured in, Mr. Dean campaigned in Texas and Virginia, registering new supporters and collecting their e-mail addresses.
The latest Internet appeal began shortly after midnight on Sunday, Sept. 21, when Mr. Gross, the blogger who joined the campaign from Utah, clicked his computer mouse and shouted, "The bat is up!" as the slugger's image hit the screen. Fellow staffers cheered.
This pitch was the campaign's most audacious: $5 million in nine days before the third quarter ended. Less then 24 hours after it was launched -- via the bat and e-mails to the 411,000 addresses now on the campaign's list -- Mr. Trippi gripped a Diet Pepsi can and paced the headquarters.
Running a hand through his wavy, graying hair, he fretted he should have set a lower goal. "What were we thinking?" he said.
The effort ended up raising $4.8 million, just shy of the goal, including another $50 from Ms. Choukas-Bradley. "I really feel like I'm part of the momentum of this campaign," she says.
The campaign's e-mail list now stands at 450,600, including 120,000 from the Meetup deal. Mr. Dean hopes to have 900,000 by year's end and enough money to follow President Bush's lead by opting out of public financing for primaries. He'd still be far behind Mr. Bush, who has raised $85 million so far, but opting out would free Mr. Dean from spending limits and give him an advantage over his Democratic rivals.