Interviewee: Joe Trippi
Director, Howard Dean 2004 Presidential Campaign
Interviewer: Dr. Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Fellow, SMU Center for Presidential History
October 14, 2013
This transcription has been prepared according to the strictest practices of the academic and transcription communities and offers our best good-faith effort at reproducing in text our subject’s spoken words. In all cases, however, the video of this interview represents the definitive version of the words spoken by interviewees.
Q: The Dean campaign, as I understand it, was the seventh presidential you’d worked in. Is that right?
TRIPPI: I think so. I — let’s see: Kennedy, Mondale, uh, Gary Hart in ’87. Then ended up with Gephardt when Gary Hart got out of the race. That’s four. I did a couple of brief — I’ve pretty much stopped doing presidential after ’88. But in ’92, I did do a quick stint with Doug Wilder’s potential campaign for president. He got out way before New Hampshire ever happened. And then, I helped a good friend — Jerry Brown — in the ninety-t– in the rest of the ’92 election — enough to put a scare into the Clinton campaign in Connecticut and Colorado and New York. And then, I think that was it till Dean. So, Dean was probably six or seventh —
Q: Mm-hmm, reading about you —
TRIPPI: — depending on how you count. (laughs)
Q: [00:01:00] Yeah. Reading about you, and reading the book you wrote, it seemed like there were things you picked up from other campaigns that turned out to be especially applicable to the Dean campaign. And I’m thinking, for example, you say at some point that Gary Hart’s notion in ’84 of finding someone in a town, and — who could build a network for you was like throwing a pebble into a pond, and it ripples.
TRIPPI: Yeah, it — yeah, it was a concentric-circle organizing, where you’d — the way to imagine it is as you throw pond — a pebble into a pond it ripples out. If you can find one person, decentralize. Let that person organize and ripple out. And if you could do that nationally, or in — across the count– you know, various areas, it could be very powerful. I saw — the first time I s– heard that notion was from Gary Hart in the ’87 campaign. [00:02:00] I saw it. I worked for Mondale in ’84, against Hart.
And so, I saw it. I mean, it al– it nearly defeated the Mondale campaignin ’84. I was fortunate enough to run Iowa and Pennsylvania for Mondale. We won both those states. But I was always looking over my shoulder at the Hart campaign, because of the way it was organizing. So that influenced my thinking a lot, in terms of how to put the Dean campaign together in 2003, 2004.
Q: Could you talk about that? How it — how it influenced…?
TRIPPI: Well, I — it was Hart in Iowa, for instance, where he came in second to Mondale, would go into a town, find that small group or one person, and sort of leave them to their own devices about how to organize. In — you know, in ’87, or ’84, when he was doing it to us in the Mondale campaign, it was effective. But it was — it took him [00:03:00] going to the town because there was no internet. There was no way to sort of do that through what — how we now take for granted, after the Obama campaign, or after the Dean campaign, too. And so it hit me that if you could — given where the technology was at the time in 2003, that maybe there was a way to take that Hart had in two-thou– in eighty– that I saw firsthand in ’84, and use the internet, and the way people could connect with each other, and the way we could have Howard Dean literally connect to one person in every town or multiple people, and unleash them, that it would be concentric circles on steroids if you will, with the — with the internet. It turned out to work. I mean, it turned out to really be some– I think, still premature. [00:04:00] It wasn’t quite ready yet, as we found out. And by 2008, it was the way, now, every campaign tries to organize it. I mean, I think we s– we were just three or four years ahead of where it really hit the sweet spot.
Q: What wasn’t there in the Dean campaign that has come along since?
TRIPPI: Just about everything. (laughter) I mean, you know, people forget, in the Dean campaign, you know, there was no broadband. There was no video. You couldn’t — there was no YouTube. YouTube did not exist. You — the will.i.am video that famously, really moved in the Obama campaign of 2007, 2008 — that video could never have happened. A group like that, making that tape of his speech with music, and millions of Americans watching it, couldn’t have happened. It was zero people on something called YouTube. [00:05:00] We had created Dean TV, which was, essentially, YouTube. And we had about two hundred thousand people on it, who — you could tune in, go online, watch a video, rank it. I mean, it was literally YouTube. Our only mistake was, we didn’t take it to a bunch of VCs right after the campaign and get rich starting YouTube. But in terms of YouTube, there was no… Facebook was on two college campuses. It was just hopping off of Harvard at the time. There was no Twitter. The iPhone wasn’t launched until 2007 — was the first release of the iPhone. So, in a lot of ways, the Dean campaign was — we were — you know, I — I’ll take it — look — I tell people we were the Wright Brothers. You know, we were doing it with a rubber band and a propeller, and making it up as we went along. We were right about the direction everything was going — pioneered a lot [00:06:00] of the techniques and things that happen today. But, you know, f– the technology moved so fast that, three years later, there were hundreds — a hundred — a hundred million people on YouTube — on a thing called YouTube — per month. The — I — Facebook was hundreds of — I mean, just millions and hundreds of millions of people on it. It was everywhere. You had the iPhone. You had all these things by 2008 that we didn’t have. And one of the best stats I can remember was, the day the Dean campaign ended — the day it ended, there were 1.4 million blogs in the world — 1.4 million blogs in the world. We were the fir– or the second — Gary Hart beat us to launching the first presidential blog. But the Dean for America blog was the — he had — he was running in 2004. [00:07:00] People forget that. But we — he — by a week, he beat us to putting a blog up. We put the first presidential blog — campaign — second presidential-campaign blog up. By the day the Obama campaign started — started — there were seventy-seven million blogs in the world. So, you’re — that’s how big and how fast, not just the technology, but the number of people using blogs and things like that to communicate — that’s how big and exponential that move was, in three years. So we were there at the 1.4 million-blog moment. Obama starts at the 77 million-blog moment. And there’s a difference. I mean, there’s a — there — that, that penetration really mattered. Carville used to say, “It’s the economy, stupid.” And hey, the economy is always going to play a point in the presidential politics. But I think, from the Dean campaign on, it was the network, stupid. The network’s getting bigger every year. [00:08:00] More people are on it. And the tools on the network have grown much more powerful every year. So that, by 2016, 2020, just like the Obama campaign made the Dean campaign look like a little tiny blip, I imagine that there will be another campaign that we look — will look back and think the Obama campaign was such a cute little primitive thing, by the time the network grows and the tools on the network — the thing — the power in people’s hands, the tools that are in people’s hands, to impact a presidential campaign and the — and issues is going to be much more powerful than they are today. We’re just at the — still at the very nascent beginning, I think.
Q: And you also mentioned, somewhere along the line, that when Jerry Brown ran in ’92, his use of the 800 number and, and the hundred-dollar ceiling on don– [00:09:00] I remember in a debate where Tom Brokaw was basically trying to get him to shut up, and he just was relentless about that. And then one other one other camp– well, go ahead. Go ahead and speak on that.
TRIPPI: Well, no, that was one of the other — you said, “campaigns —
Q: Yeah, yeah.
TRIPPI: — that influenced you.” And that — in the ’92 campaign, there was a guy named Joe Costello who worked with me — who worked in the Brown campaign. The two of us came up with the idea of the 800 number at the same time. I mean, we were — he was in the California office. I was at home in Washington. And we got all excited and started to try to figure out, how do you make that TV…? I’ve always had this thing: how do you make that damn box not a one-way mechanism? And back then, we didn’t have the internet or anything. We did have phones. And we thought, well, maybe we could get people to interact with what we were doing on TV by calling in. And so, we used the 800 number. I think we raised about seven or eight hun– $8 million on — um, [00:10:00] by people calling into Jerry Brown’s number and contributing, using their credit cards. And we had the hundred-dollar limit, and it worked. I mean, it looked — worked beyond our belief. And, as you pointed out, in the middle of the NBC debate, Jerry would just keep holding up the number after every question and going — well, you know, “Let me answer your question on education. And, by the way, call eight hundred…” You know, and it worked. And it — Brokaw, by — there was a f– a break somewhere in that — I think a five-minute break in the middle of that debate. And Brokaw was calling every one of us — I remember him calling a colleague — uh, Mike Ford, who was helping Jerry Brown — and begging him to get Jerry Brown to stop doing that in the second half of the debate. Well, that didn’t work. Jerry kept doing it. But the 800 number did work. And, at that point, um — that, again, was something that — Gary Hart from ’84 [00:11:00] experience, Jerry Brown from the ’92 experience — start to s– you could start to see how all those things influenced the Dean campaign, in terms of the way we raised money online. We now had something — not phones, but the internet. And, and the ci– concentric-circles organizing that I’d seen firsthand fighting — both fighting Hart in ’84, and then working with him in ’87. So, yeah, those are two that really stand out as campaigns that clearly influenced the Dean campaign. That’s something people, I think, lose in all this. Those — there’s three losing campaigns, right? I mean, the Mondale campaign didn’t — we won the nomination but we didn’t win the presidents; we — the Jerry Brown campaign, that many people probably don’t even remember today; and the Dean campaign, were three losing campaigns. All of them are — [00:12:00] in some way, I think, lead to the Obama campaign.