Saturday, August 02, 2003

I can't believe it. I just can't believe it. It's as nuts as it is brilliant. You probably heard it somewhere else earlier, but for those that didn't, check this out:

From Friday the 25th of July through Monday the 29th, 9,621 Americans joined together to demonstrate the power of the grassroots-- and raised over $508,000 in the Dean Team vs. Bush-Cheney Challenge. Your tremendous accomplishment has enabled us to do this.

Beginning Monday, Howard Dean is going up on the air in Austin, Texas. In a television commercial recorded late this week, he will invite the people of Texas to join us in building the great grassroots campaign of the modern era-- whether by signing up online or using our new toll-free number, which will be revealed on Monday.
Unbelievable. Dean's going after Bush in his home state of Texas... a state that most people agree there is no chance Democrats can win in 2004. A state that it's very likely most of the other Democratic candidates will not even campaign in, let alone focus on, and a state that is practically synonymous with the "southern strategy" that helps keep the Republicans in power.

So why is it he doing it? I've heard various explanations: that the delegates are numerous and up for grabs, that Texas isn't as Republican as people think, that there will be a ton of free media coverage that will very likely be extremely positive and that it pulls him out of the "pack" and sets him up as an opponent to Bush. All of these are undoubtedly true; the media coverage could be dicey, however, as newsmedia love covering the horse race and could play this up as a foolish waste of money.

But all those miss the point. It's not just about media, and it's not just about delegates, and it's certainly not just about positioning. It's about activism.

The people of Texas know George W. Bush better than anyone. Throughout this campaign, Howard Dean has been standing up to George W. Bush, and what better place to stand up against what George W. Bush has done to the economy and our nation than in Bush's home state of Texas.

When we've said we're building a grassroots campaign in all 50 states, we've meant all 50 states. You have enabled us to bring Howard Dean's message to Texas. Help spread the word to the rest of the country by forwarding this blog entry, and ask your friends in every state to join us.

We'll have the commercial on the web at the right time, sometime over the weekend. There will be more coming. But on Monday, Howard Dean goes up on the air in Texas.
Remember exactly what he's done here: he's taken extra money from an online fundraiser and plowed it into attacking the person who is largely driving Dean's activism: President Bush. Those donors (and their fellow activists) are the real target. Dean is giving them exactly what they want. Their money is going towards fighting Bush, in a bold and audacious way. They were the first ones to know, and they're being endlessly lauded for their support. They feel like they're important, like they make a difference, and that's absolutely vital. If they were fanatical before, they'll be zealots now.

The thing is, this is probably the most important goal for Dean to set. Dean is not going to have the money that the Republicans enjoy, and the Dem establishment may turn its back on him if he wins the nomination. (They shouldn't, it'd be stupid, but it's possible.) He also doesn't enjoy the support of something like the conservative movement, which will be foursquare behind Bush and (Dean must realize) fighting just as fanatically to keep their man in power in the face of the "peacenik" Dean. He may not even get the unions, who back Gephardt, and their membership may not be too enthralled about someone they consider anti-war anyway.

Enter the Deanniks.

Dean and Trippi obviously aren't stupid men, and since they aren't stupid, they must have noticed the weirdest aspect of current American political history: "outsider" organizations. Whether it's due to disgust or disinterest with the mainstream parties and candidates or not, there is this remarkable trend within the American polity of people coalescing around outsider campaigns. It happened with Perot, who was actually a serious threat before he dropped out in '92, it happened with McCain, and it arguably happened with Nader (although Nader wasn't nearly so popular as the other two.) These people attracted hordes of devoted followers, often simply through sheer power of personality, honesty, and bloodymindedness. Being seen as a little nuts doesn't hurt, either.

(This is one big reason why '04 isn't '72; McGovern didn't fit this pattern at all.)

I think it may be Trippi's key strategy, and it may be one that he and Dean ride to the White House. The problem with these candidates in the past is that they've either been third party candidates (Nader, Perot) and thus without a chance of winning, or were up against a party machine so disciplined and powerful that they just couldn't get over the hump (McCain). They've never been one of the "big two" in a race, and that's what Dean is going for. He must know that the party machine is writing off this election while it preps Hilary for 2008 (not certain, but likely) and knows he must therefore build his own machine or lose; this sort of tactic is the best way in turn-of-the-millennium America of doing so.

So he builds this army of fanatics. What good will it do? Well, Dean's key goals are a large number of small donations (he said two million $100 donations, but it need not be that extreme), and getting out the vote so that as many likely Demo-leaning and insurgent-leaning (Perot/McCain) voters get to the polls and vote for him as possible. Couple the two together, and he could cobble together enough votes in enough states for victory.

This GOTV effort is a little different than most. It isn't about demographics, as Ruy Teixeiras seems to believe. It is, in fact, exactly about that concept of strategic activation that I mentioned earlier. Normally these sorts of things are aimed at demographics, but they don't have to be (direct mail certainly isn't). This is about identifying those who like to climb on the insurgent bandwagon, and exploiting them for the benefit of a mainstream, "big two" candidate for the first time since Perot got this thing rolling. Thing is, the best way to do something like this is to have boots on the ground, and this army of zealots is the best way to do so.

(The fact that they're largely wired will also help during the media war. Letter-to-the-editor campaigns, oppo research, information dissemination and such will be a snap. The Dean Defense Forces aren't going anywhere, and they're just gonna get more and more dedicated and, well, loud as Bush starts attacking Dean. Gore never had anything like this.)

Thus we get back to the ad, and why it's brilliant. It helps build this army, it makes people feel good about being in this army, it ensures that they'll support Dean as much as they're financially able and encourage others to do so, and assuming Dean doesn't forget about them during the "lurch to the center", he'll have an on-the-ground electoral machine that this country has never seen before.

(Of course, this depends on Dean winning the nomination. I have no idea about that, and many of the Dean backers have said they'll support the Dems no matter who they nominate, possibly barring Leiberman. It just got a fair bit likelier today, however, and I'm increasingly convinced that Dean is building the campaign of the 21st century. Whether or not he wins, what he's doing right now matters.)

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