Early in the 2004 Democratic campaign season, during the first quarter of 2003, Howard Dean lagged behind in the Democratic primaries. He lacked the name recognition of Senator John Kerry, the charisma of newcomer Senator John Edwards, and the national experience of Richard Gephardt. This all changed when he hired Joe Trippi as his campaign manager in March 2003. Trippi quickly developed a new strategy which gave Dean a fighting chance, and in doing so, revolutionized modern campaigning.
A mainstay in Democratic Party politics, Joe Trippi began his career as a political consultant during the 1970s. His first major campaign experience came in 1979 when he served on the staff of Senator Edward Kennedy’s presidential run. From that point on, except for a brief period during the 1990s when he only worked on television ads, Trippi developed political and media strategy for numerous Democratic candidates throughout the United States.
Though journalist Ezra Klein reported that Trippi had previously vowed to never work on another presidential contest, Trippi chose to break that commitment on behalf of Howard Dean.1 Regarding this change of heart, Trippi later explained that Dean: “talked from the heart about things I believed in…he said that America was drifting towards war in Iraq for the wrong reasons. That the country was too beholden to special interests. That the greatest nation in the history of the world ought to provide health care for its people…I fell in love.”2
Dean, a relatively unknown two-term governor from Vermont, remained a long shot at the start of his campaign. With only a little over 150,000 dollars in the bank and seven staff members in January 2003, it did not appear he would last deep into the contest.3 Over time he came to be seen as one of the most liberal Democratic candidates, and by far, the most confrontational Democratic candidate on the Iraq War. One particular Dean advertisement from November 2003 overtly questioned the judgment and patriotism of those who supported the U.S. intervention.4 He consistently criticized President Bush and any Democrat who voted in favor of the war resolution. This earned him praise from the Democratic base but also made him appear combative to centrists.
In the spring of 2003, Trippi began implementing his new campaign strategy. He attended a campaign meeting in New York organized through the website meetup.com. This company sought to help people with common interests, in a common geographical region, physically meet together. Trippi quickly realized that many Dean supporters were already using the site as a means to host local gatherings in support of their candidate. He recognized that this medium offered untapped potential as a way of connecting supporters, signing up volunteers, and gaining campaign donations. In response, he created an entire campaign department devoted to internet outreach. These actions allowed for a more bottom-up approach of campaigning and created a new sense among voters that they were more a part of the campaign.5
Trippi later acknowledged that it was this sort of grassroots activism, rather than the official Dean campaign, which generated the swell of nationwide support for Dean. At its high point in 2004, the number of Dean supporters on Meetup.com alone reached 143,000, spread throughout the country. “They built our organization for us before we had an organization,” he once told a reporter.6 This utilization of grassroots approach fit with Trippi’s view of Dean. He saw the Vermont governor in the mold of a Washington outsider, unafraid to take on special interests. By focusing campaign energies on online technologies Trippi allowed that populist message to reach more people and promote more volunteerism in support of the campaign.
Trippi’s focus on internet outreach occurred just as the Dean campaign surged in the polls during the summer of 2003 and became a viable candidate heading into the fall. By the end of 2003, he led the Democratic field, with the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary just ahead.7 Unfortunately for Dean and Trippi, the momentum did not hold. Dean finished third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire, while John Kerry won both contests. In late January, following the two defeats, the campaign went through a reorganization, including Trippi resigning his position. Several members of Dean’s staff worried that with Trippi’s departure, the “spirit” of the campaign had left.8 One month later, on 18 February 2004, Dean ended his presidential run.
The legacy of Trippi, and the Dean campaign, is twofold. First, Trippi’s innovative use of Meetup revolutionized future campaign strategies. After 2004, more and more candidates utilized the internet as a medium to rally support and gain donations. This was nowhere more evident than in Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign in 2008. Second, because Trippi’s innovation gave Howard Dean a larger platform to get his message out, other Democratic candidates, at times, had to take more liberal positions than they had originally planned, so as not to lose ground in the primaries. This proved particularly true when it came to foreign policy and Dean’s hard-line stance against the war in Iraq. Ultimately, Joe Trippi left a lasting mark on the 2004 presidential election and his utilization of the internet as a political tool continues to affect campaigns today.
1Ezra Klein, “Power Trippi: Howard Dean’s candidacy showcased the best—and worst—of Internet campaigning,” Washington Monthly, October 2004.2Joe Trippi, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything Else (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).3Kevin Anderson, “Internet Insurgent Howard Dean,” January 14, 2004, available from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3394897.stm.4Howard Dean’s Iraq Ad for New Hampshire, available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7RIToEwRJI.
5Daniel Kreiss, Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 7.
6Micah Sifry, “From Howard Dean to the tea party: The power of Meetup.com,” CNN, November 7, 2011.
7Richard Benedetto and Susan Page, “Clark closes in on Dean in poll; Bush still beats Democratic field,” USA Today, .January 6, 2004.
8Dan Collins, “Dean Dumps Campaign Manager,” CBS News, January 28, 2004.