Joe Trippi Reinvents Campaigning
by NOAM SCHEIBER
The New Republic, November 17, 2003, page18
Everyone tells their own version of how Walter Mondale won the straw poll at Iowa's Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in 1983, but they all go something like this: In early October, a young Mondale aide named Joe Trippi shows up in Des Moines to check on Mondale's Iowa field operation. What he finds there horrifies him. Somehow the Iowa team has allowed the rival campaign of California Senator Alan Cranston to nearly corner the market on tickets to the JJ dinner, an annual affair designed to raise money for the Iowa state Democratic Party. This is, to colossally understate things, a problem. The dinner's traditional straw poll is an important barometer of public opinion in the state that hosts the nation's first caucuses. Mondale is a former vice president from neighboring Minnesota. Not only is he expected to win the straw poll; he is expected to win big. But the way you win is by packing the convention hall full of your own supporters. And the way you do that is by selling them tickets or buying tickets for them.
Trippi is nearly hysterical when he calls Campaign Manager Bob Beckel and Deputy Manager Mike Ford in Washington. "He speaks so fast, it was hard to keep up," Beckel recalls. "I said, `Joe, What's the bottom line? What do you need?' He said, `I just need permission to do whatever I need to do.' ... I just said OK." But there isn't a lot Trippi can do. He can try to get the Iowa Democratic Party to sell him more tickets. But there's no way they're going to sell him $275,000 worth, which is what Trippi estimates Cranston has bought. And, even if they would, there's no way he can afford to drop that kind of cash on an off-year event. When it comes down to it, Trippi is going to have to get his hands on tickets that have already been sold. Cranston tickets. Lots of them. And yet, once he accepts that proposition, the solution is almost elegant in its simplicity: What's to stop him from just marching right up to Cranston's people and asking for them?
"We started really early in the day," Trippi remembers, reflecting on how he and an Iowa colleague named Tom Cosgrove solved their JJ problem. "They stopped about three miles out [from] the staging area--the Mondale buses coming from Minnesota or wherever they were coming from." What follows is one of the most ambitious political makeovers in history. A team of Mondale aides, led by Cosgrove, plasters the bus with Cranston paraphernalia--stickers, posters, buttons, everything. Three miles down the road, the bus pulls up to the Cranston tent, where a Mondale/ Cranston supporter gets out and tells a real Cranston aide he has 52 people on the bus. The aide looks up at the bus, surely admiring the military-like discipline that has brought a busload of Cranston supporters from "Los Angeles or wherever" out to the middle of Iowa this early in the day, and quietly congratulates himself. He promptly hands over 52 tickets.
And it continues like this, through bus after bus of Mondale supporters: Stop three miles up the highway, lather the bus in Cranston paraphernalia, drive on to the Cranston tent, claim your tickets. And the Cranston campaign just keeps forking them over. Happily. Hell, the more buses that show up, the more impressed the Cranston people are by their own handiwork. Never does it occur to them that these busloads of supporters aren't the genuine article. At least not until the real Cranston buses start showing up. "Twenty buses pull up, and they're out of tickets," Trippi says, still amused at the spectacle almost 20 years later. "More Cranston buses keep pulling up, and they don't have the tickets anymore." Score one for Walter Mondale.
Joe Trippi has been called a lot of things during the eight months he has been managing Howard Dean's campaign for president. To rival campaigns, he's an overgrown computer geek, playing around on blogs and chat rooms until all hours of the night. To the most die-hard Dean supporters, he's an almost messianic figure, the man who helped catapult an obscure Vermont governor to the front of the Democratic pack. And, to the press, Trippi is the kind of uninhibited quote machine most reporters drool over--tossing off quips that are part campaign insider, part pundit, and part pure bravado.
There's some truth to all these claims. But Trippi is first and foremost an organizer--a man who has spent much of his career making sure the right number of bodies turn up on Election Day. "That's the way [organizers] think," says Beckel. "They think about moving votes. In his case, where do you find [the votes]? Who are they? Where do they stand? If they're with us, get them; if they're not with us, forget about them. If they're undecided, badger the hell out of them." And for good reason: In the Democratic primaries, where turnout is extremely low, the better-organized campaign almost always wins.
Of course, Dean's rivals realize this as well. Their campaigns are all staffed by seasoned veterans who collectively have been through dozens of primary contests. What these rivals didn't realize at the onset of the 2004 campaign is that the Internet is the ultimate organizing tool. In fact, the reason they're all now staring up at the bottom of Dean's shoes is that no political operative had ever realized it before Joe Trippi came along.
Trippi was 24 when he joined his first presidential campaign, as an organizer for Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy in the 1980 Arizona precinct caucuses. The challenge facing Kennedy in Arizona was that the Democratic establishment in the state--as in most states--was behind the incumbent, Jimmy Carter. And, while there were large pockets of Kennedy support, primarily in the state's poorer Hispanic communities and on its Indian reservations, the Carter-friendly establishment had arrayed the polling places so that they would be nearly impossible for Kennedy-backers to get to. "What they had done is they had only nineteen polling places," Trippi recalls. "And they were put as far away from the minority community and [Indian] reservations as they could put them."
Trippi was already a veteran of multiple organizing efforts in his native California. That experience paid dividends when California Governor Jerry Brown decided not to challenge Carter for the Democratic nomination. Brown, a longtime supporter of Cesar Chavez's farm-workers union, would have instantly had the farm workers' backing in Arizona had he entered the race. His decision not to run created an opening for Trippi who, on the strength of his relationship with Cesar's son Fernando, helped convince the farm workers to mobilize their shock troops for Kennedy. "They came in like a swat team in Arizona," says one Kennedy campaign official. "In the [Latino] community, the farm workers are tremendous heroes. They had enormous credibility." On Election Day, Trippi and the farm workers went up and down the so-called Phoenix-Tucson corridor, a population hub in the southcentral part of the state, piling voters into rented vans and shuttling them to polling places. "These nineteen polling places had lines for hours," Trippi remembers. Kennedy won Arizona by ten points.
After Arizona, Trippi loaded his most loyal lieutenants into his ailing, gold Pinto and drove nonstop for nearly 1,000 miles to Austin, where Bill Carrick was running Kennedy's Texas operation. Texas was the next major Southwestern primary state on the calendar, and Carrick was adamant that he already had it fully staffed. But Trippi, undeterred, pointed to a splotch on the map in the northeastern part of the state and asked if it was available. "Well, we're still working on that," Carrick shot back, trying to suppress a guffaw. Trippi had stumbled onto the single most conservative, pro-Carter area in the state: Dallas- Fort Worth.
At the time, Texas had one of the more convoluted methods of allocating its delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Once every four years, voters would show up for what looked like a typical primary--the wrinkle being that the primary didn't count for anything. To actually win delegates, you had to make sure your supporters turned out for the state's caucuses, which took place at eight o'clock the same evening. The catch was that you couldn't attend the caucuses without having voted in the primary, since it was your primary stub that got you in the door. It was, in short, a nightmare for political organizers.
Trippi figured Carter supporters outnumbered Kennedy supporters in the Dallas area by something like four to one. At that rate, there probably weren't enough Kennedy partisans in all of East Texas to make a Dallas win likely. But, in principle, it didn't really matter. Because all you really had to do to win delegates was to get enough of your voters to attend the caucuses. Of course, to this point, no one had quite figured out how to do that. "Headquarters had us doing this weird thing where you call people up and say, `Who are you [supporting] for president?'" Trippi recalls. "If they say, `I'm for Ted Kennedy,' you say, `Great, make sure you vote.' Then, after they said OK, you said, `Now, you're going to get this sticker, you're going to have to wear it, you're going to have to go to Charlie's house ... .' And we weren't getting through. People were just hanging up on us."
A couple of hundred phone calls in, it occurred to Trippi that it would save everybody a lot of time and aggravation if there were some way to get your supporters to come to you rather than seeking them out yourself. Trippi thought about it a little more, and pretty soon he had an idea: What if, come Election Day, you set up a little lemonade stand with a sign that read kennedy supporters: free lemonade here outside every Dallas-area polling station? On the one hand, no one in his right mind was going to pass up free, cold lemonade in 100-degree heat. On the other hand, Carter supporters weren't exactly in their right minds. They were, in fact, exactly the kind of people who'd deprive themselves just to spite Kennedy, even if it was 100 degrees out. Which was exactly the idea. Because, once you were sure you had your own people throwing back free glasses of lemonade, you could make your case. As Trippi explains it, "You'd say, `See that stub you got? Let me tell you what's going on. They've been hoodwinkin' you, dude. This thing that you just went through? It's bullshit. It's a beauty contest. Eight o'clock tonight is where [the real event is].'" It was that easy.
Carrick, needless to say, wasn't pleased to learn that the fate of his Dallas operation lay in the hands of a couple-dozen hastily assembled lemonade stands. And, when Trippi tried to circumvent him by calling national political director Karl Wagner in Washington, Wagner cut him off before he could get a word out: "Joe, you're not doing the lemonade stands." So, according to Trippi, "I hung up the phone and walked into my staff and said, `OK, don't tell anybody, but we're doing lemonade stands.'" The results spoke for themselves. The Kennedy campaign won most of the national delegates in the Dallas area and got wiped out just about everywhere else in the state. "It was very effective," Carrick concedes.
It's not much of an overstatement to say that political organizing didn't change a whole lot between the mid-nineteenth century and the 1960s. As early as 1840, according to Daniel Shea, a professor of political science at Allegheny College and author of Campaign Craft: The Strategies, Tactics, and Art of Political Campaign Management, voters were organized in two phases: The weekend before an election, party activists would go door-to-door or drop leaflets in supporters' neighborhoods, reminding them of the upcoming vote. Then, on Election Day, the party would place a representative at each polling site to record the name of every voter who showed up. Every so often throughout the day, a runner would grab the list and take it back to the local headquarters, where the names would be checked off a master registration list maintained by the party. The people whose names remained on the master list by the middle of the afternoon would receive a visit from an activist or, in later years, a phone call urging them to get to the polls.
Partisan affiliation began to decline in the '60s, creating a new class of swing voters and a new problem for political parties. When the universe of a candidate's supporters overlapped almost entirely with the universe of party members, as it had for the previous hundred years, winning elections was mostly a function of turning out the vote. Now the parties had to spend time and resources winning over unaligned voters--even members inclined to vote for the other side. Demographic characteristics that correlated with voting behavior--such as age, income level, and gender-- suddenly became important.
Still, up until the late '90s, parties and campaigns tried to determine who would vote for them by looking primarily at who had shown up for the previous election. As a first cut, this was a reasonable way to go about things. The problem was that the method didn't account for important nuances--such as newly registered voters, people who usually vote but just happened to miss the previous election, people who are registered one way but tend to vote the other--which would make the get-out-the-vote effort even more efficient.
That's where information technology (I.T.) has had a significant impact in the past few years. Using ever more detailed data, a computer can tell you exactly how much certain demographic characteristics increase a person's likelihood of voting--and of voting a certain way. Suppose, completely arbitrarily, that affluent, middle-aged, white females only show up for every other election, but they favor Democrats 90 percent of the time when they do vote. If you're a Democratic candidate, you probably want to make a special effort to get this group to the polls.
Of course, focusing your efforts in this way may only get you a couple of percentage points on Election Day. (Hal Malchow, a direct-mail specialist who worked for Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, estimates that a similar kind of targeting improves the efficiency of a campaign mailing by between 10 and 30 percent.) But, in a close race, a couple of percentage points may be the difference between winning and losing.
It's helpful to think about these developments in terms of what you might call "cost per body"--that is, the total amount you end up spending to bring a single supporter to the polls. If resources were unlimited, no one would care about the cost per body. You could just send a campaign worker to every house in, say, Iowa, identify your supporters, and drag them to the voting booth. But resources are limited. Which means that, among candidates with similarly appealing platforms and equal amounts of money, the one with the lowest cost per body wins. I.T. is a way for campaigns to lower that cost, if only marginally.
And yet, even though campaigns are organizing supporters more efficiently than ever before, they're still using the same basic techniques they've been using for 35--and in many cases 150--years. Donna Brazile, who managed the Gore campaign, recalls that her single most important concern at this point in 1999 was the campaign's Iowa hard count--i.e., the number of people who have committed to supporting your candidate in the upcoming election. "It's a standard recipe," Brazile explains: The campaign buys a list of registered voters and past caucusgoers from the state party just before it opens for business. At that point, you start making phone calls. The people who say they're definitely supporting your candidate are assigned a "one." The people who say they're leaning your way get a "two." And the people who say they're for the other guy get a "three." Your job is to convert all your twos to ones and to keep your ones from sliding. The number of ones you have at any given time is your hard count. Let it fall too low, and you can kiss the election goodbye.
Which is to say, with the possible exception of Trippi's lemonade stands, no innovation introduced in the 160 years between 1840 and 2000 had changed the basic economics of organizing: As long as you still had to go out and identify your supporters and drag them to the polls, it still cost you a ton of money for every vote you won.
Trippi has always been a self-described technophile. He spent three years at San Jose State University majoring in aerospace engineering. Beckel remembers doing a panel discussion with him not long after the 1984 campaign, when Trippi was already talking about an early version of the Internet and how it could change politics. "I said, `Joe, I don't have any idea what you're talking about,'" Beckel recalls. Meanwhile, though Trippi's profile in the small world of political operatives continued to grow with each successive presidential campaign--Mondale in the 1984 election cycle, Gary Hart and then Dick Gephardt in the 1988 cycle--he'd begun to sour on the life of the political operative. The constant plotting and scheming of a presidential campaign had started to wear on him, as had the growing importance of money in politics and the implosion of the Hart campaign over something as seemingly irrelevant as Donna Rice. So it wasn't entirely surprising that the late '90s found Trippi entrenched in Silicon Valley instead--investing in tech start-ups, sitting on boards of directors, and doing corporate consulting on the side.
One of those start-ups was a little-known firm called Wave Systems, whose products secure information--like credit card numbers--used in online transactions. But more important than the technology was the investor community Wave created. Starting in about 1997, the company set up a chat board for Wave investors interested in exchanging ideas with one another. Pretty soon the site was attracting hundreds of posts per day from so- called "Wavoids"--at all hours of the night. What kept them coming back was the fact that Wave executives were actually reading what the investors wrote. "They had this constituency," says Jason Barkeloo, a Ph.D. student living in Ohio who invested in the company early on and remains a frequent poster on the company's message board. "The people involved in this community were doctors, neurosurgeons, psychiatrists, professors. ... I'd come home at four, five in afternoon, and I'd be online doing research 'til two in the morning."
Joe Trippi--username "random1"--was also a Wavoid. "Snackman, Bigtim, EcommerceMan--I can tell you everything about that community," he says. Trippi had begun investing in Wave and posting on its chat board in 1999. Although he was intrigued by the kind of community Wave had built, within a couple months it became obvious that the company wasn't doing as good a job as it could of interacting with investors. "They had a really tough time communicating in English what it is they do," Trippi recalls. So Trippi sent an e-mail directly to Wave CEO Steven Sprague and his father, Peter, the company's chairman. "I said, `I think you guys are screwing up. You're not communicating things right. ... Here's why and how and everything.'"
A month later, Trippi was on the company payroll--a move that, according to Barkeloo, was like catnip to the Wavoids. "When Joe came on board, through the community there was an air of, `One of us now is on the inside.' Joe, as far as I know, was the bridge between the community and the company." Sprague estimates that, before long, Wave's investors were generating 1,000 and 1,500 posts per day, something basically unheard of in the corporate world. "I don't think there's anyone that will tell you there's anything like it," Trippi says.
Beyond its size, two things stood out about the Wave community. The first was the emotional investment the shareholders were making thanks to their interaction with each other and the company's management--an investment that produced incredible loyalty. "I think that the individual retail investor, no doubt about it, kept Wave afloat," says Barkeloo. "The loyal following kept the stock price up. The company should have gone away [when the tech bubble burst], but it didn't because of the retail base." The second thing was the way the investment community expanded. "It was word of mouth, grassroots," Sprague explains. "A buddy calls you up and says, `Ah, I have a great stock.' You say, `Where can I learn more?' He says, `Join the chat board.'"
Trippi is often credited with bringing the Dean campaign into the information age. In fact, it's the other way around: It was Dean's rapidly growing Internet support that made it necessary to bring Trippi into the campaign. The turning point was the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in February, where Dean offered a full-throated denunciation of the drive to war in Iraq and accused his party of failing to stand up to the president. Dean had been receiving a healthy 50 e-mails per day prior to the speech, but suddenly the messages were pouring in. "After the DNC speech, [the e-mails] went up geometrically," says Rick Ridder, Trippi's immediate predecessor as campaign manager. "It was close to five hundred a day."
One of Trippi's first acts on behalf of the Dean campaign (he was a consultant at the time) was to negotiate a contract with Meetup.com--an online service that helps people with common interests find one another and plan local gatherings. In early January, according to The Wall Street Journal, Meetup decided to test the market for political gatherings by inviting users to sign up for a "Meetup" with John Edwards, John Kerry, or Howard Dean. Four hundred people signed up for the Dean Meetup on the first day alone, leading a young Meetup employee named William Finkel to suggest to his boss, CEO Scott Heiferman, that the two seek out Trippi and establish a formal business relationship. "I was going to D.C. for a business meeting at AOL," says Heiferman. "William said, `Hey, let's go see this guy Joe Trippi.' I said, `Who the hell's Joe Trippi?' He said, `He's working on the Dean campaign.' I said, `Who the hell's Howard Dean?'"
But Heiferman met Trippi, and 40 minutes later the future Dean campaign manager had seen something he hadn't seen for almost 25 years. The beauty of the Meetups, like the beauty of the lemonade stands he'd set up for Ted Kennedy in 1980, was that your supporters came to you. And that meant that the cost per body fell dramatically. Or, more precisely, to some fraction of $2,500. That's the price Trippi agreed to pay Meetup for the information Dean supporters entered when they signed up for Dean gatherings.
Meetup figured perfectly into Trippi's grand campaign strategy. He reasoned that Dean's antiwar, anti-Bush message would resonate at the grassroots, meaning Dean could raise impressive amounts of money from a large base of small donors. That's what had happened in 1992, when Trippi's client, Jerry Brown, promised not to accept donations larger than $100 for his presidential campaign. "I had the same concern everyone else did," Trippi recalls. "`A hundred dollars? Do you know how many hundred- dollar checks you've got to raise to compete with Bill Clinton and these other guys?'" But the response among contributors was quick--and overwhelming. The campaign raised $5 million, helping Brown win the Connecticut and Colorado primaries and come within a hair's breadth of winning New York. But the way the campaign came to collect so much money in such small amounts was even more significant: the first known use of an 800 number to solicit feedback from supporters, making the campaign interactive.
Trippi believed he could repeat that success using a twenty-first-century update of his earlier methods--not only to raise money but to build the kind of community he'd seen evolve at Wave Systems, which could do a lot of the heavy organizational lifting for him. In addition to the Meetups, he created a Web log, where supporters could post their thoughts and get feedback from the campaign. The hope was that each person who attended a Dean Meetup or who wrote regularly on the Dean blog would turn around and involve several more people--siblings, parents, friends, business associates--all of whom could be put to work for the campaign. (On July 2, for example, Dean Meetup-goers wrote letters to every undecided voter in Iowa.) Trippi would eventually hire a Web staff of some ten people to write everything from computer code to blog content.
Before long, Trippi puts together a PowerPoint presentation explaining how he's going to use the Internet to attract cash and sign up supporters-- which he dutifully takes around to meetings with labor leaders, congressmen, fund-raisers, and other members of the Democratic establishment. But, of course, at the time the campaign has a measly 8,000 people signed up on its website. To say, as Trippi does, that Dean is going to have 150,000 people signed up by June and 450,000 by September, and that it's going to lap the field in fund-raising--well, the average Democratic suit just has no idea what to do with that. "You have one hundred fifty-seven thousand bucks in the bank, and everyone just saw your FEC report," Trippi says. "Everybody I gave the presentation to looked at me like I was from Mars and probably on massive quantities of hallucinogenic drugs."
That's February. In March, something happens. According to Heiferman, the average pre-Dean Meetup size was between eight and 16 people--"a dozen knitters here, fifteen Harry Potter fans there." But, as Dean's March Meetup rolls around, Heiferman notices that there are 250 people signed up for a single location in New York--just one of hundreds of Dean Meetups set to take place across the country on the same day. Heiferman decides to check it out for himself and can barely believe his eyes. "There's that moment of seeing what turned out to be five hundred people packed into this place," he remembers, still not entirely convinced he saw what he thinks he saw. Then, in late March, something else happens. Trippi looks at his website and sees that he's now got 22,000 e-mail addresses. He thinks to himself, why not ask people to help make one big fund-raising push in the last week of the quarter? The results blow him away: 10,000 individual contributors; nearly $500,000 in six days.
A month passes, and it's more of the same: More e-mail addresses, more people at the Meetups, more money rolling in. Another month, and another, and it just keeps growing. Now it's late June, and Trippi is sure he's not on massive quantities of hallucinogenic drugs--or, if he is, the rest of the world is, too. He packs up the PowerPoint presentation and goes back to see the Democratic suits. "You saw me talk to you before," Trippi would say. "Let me explain this to you." And Trippi lays out the numbers. Back in February, he'd promised that 150,000 people would sign up on the website by the end of June. There are actually 159,000. Ears perk up. And then Trippi starts speaking the suits' language. "I just hand them a slip of paper that says 2.6 million dollars on it, or whatever it was that day. I'd say, `That's how much money we've raised this quarter. We're ten days away from the end of quarter.'" And then he'd close the deal. "You know how you're going to know this [campaign] is true? Keep this. Whatever you read in the newspaper about what we do in this quarter, remember that it happened after this amount." And the suits just stare blankly at their slips of paper--$2.6 million, or $2.4 million, or $3.1 million--whatever it happens to be that day. And now they're not so sure. What if this guy is for real?
Come early July, the suits are sitting down to read those newspapers Trippi told them to read, and the newspapers all say that Dean has raised $7.6 million. The suits look at their slips of paper--with $2.6 million, or 2.4, or 3.1, or whatever--and they look back at the newspaper, and it just doesn't make any sense. That's when Trippi's phone starts ringing. All at once the suits are calling. They want another look at that PowerPoint presentation. "Now, no one was doing `Geez, you're crazy,' anymore," Trippi says. "They were just going like, `Oh shit.'" Suddenly, it's dawning on the suits that, if you can go from $2.6 to $7.6 million in ten days, and if you can go from 22,000 to 159,000 people in three months, then those 450,000 people Trippi promised by the end of September just might materialize. And, if those 450,000 people Trippi promised materialized, who knew how much money they might bring with them?
But, in truth, the suits are only grasping the tip of the iceberg. Because the money is incidental--a by-product, really. Far more important is that Trippi is racking up a hard count most campaign operatives could only dream of--and without having to make a single phone call, knock on a single door, or send a single piece of direct mail. Every time the suits have heard about the Internet changing politics over the last ten years, their eyes have glazed over. And for good reason. Up until Howard Dean and Joe Trippi came along, the only thing I.T. had done was marginally lower the cost of doing the same things they'd always done. And it wasn't even clear it did that. But Trippi is doing something radically different. Like all those fanatical Wave Systems investors, the Dean supporters are doing the hard work of organizing for him, which means the cost per body is falling like mad. Come to think of it, the campaign is even making money in the process.
Trippi is an olive-skinned man with large, bulbous features--bulging eyes, prominent lips, meaty ears--a middle-aged paunch, and a slightly balding, salt-and-pepper pate. When he's not out roaming among aides, he's usually leaning back deep in his chair, feet propped up on the edge of the folding table that serves as his desk, grasping at a can of Diet Pepsi or one of the handful of gadgets that litter his office. Halfway through our conversation I ask how big a deal it is to have stumbled onto a way to get supporters to do part of your job for you. Trippi waves me around to his side of the table and directs me to a portion of the Dean website called "Deanlink," which tracks the number of additional supporters each current Dean-backer is bringing in. "Here's Jonathan Kreiss Tompkins," Trippi says, pointing to a picture on the screen of his laptop. Jonathan Kreiss Tompkins lives in Alaska and, it turns out, has single-handedly signed up 463 other Dean supporters--their names go on for screen after screen down the left side of Jonathan's Deanlink page. "What I'm trying to say is ... all these people have linked themselves to this guy--and it keeps going, dude." Trippi pauses and looks up. "Now here's the really cool thing: Jonathan Kreiss Tompkins is fourteen years old."
What Trippi doesn't say is that, if you find yourself enough Jonathan Kreiss Tompkinses, pretty soon you've won yourself the nomination. (This is something even the supposedly Internet-savvy campaign of General Wesley Clark doesn't seem to understand.) After all, there are about 100,000 Democrats who typically vote in the Iowa caucuses out of about 500,000 registered in the state. In the average presidential year, you can assure yourself of a win if you get your hard count up to about 30,000. In a year when there are nine candidates, the hard count you need to ensure victory is even lower. Now extend the logic: If, as the DNC assumes, there are about 50 million registered Democrats in the country, and the same percentage of Democrats show up at the polls on primary day around the country as they do in Iowa, then no more than ten million people are likely to vote in all. Which means that, assuming your supporters are distributed the right way, you probably don't need a national hard count of more than one or two million to assure yourself the nomination.
Mention this theory to Trippi, and he cites Washington state--a place, it's probably safe to say, that none of the other campaigns are even thinking about at this point. "In Washington state, God help any of the other candidates," he says. "We have such an organization up there." According to Trippi, somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 people have historically turned out for the state's presidential caucuses. This past August, 15,000 people turned out to see Dean stop by a Seattle Meetup during his "Sleepless Summer Tour." "I'm standing there going like, `Shit, we'd win the caucus today,'" Trippi recalls. "`We'd win the statewide caucus with how many people are standing here.'" And even that probably understates Dean's grassroots support: Seattle was just one of more than 20 Meetups across Washington state that day.
Of course, a skeptic might say that, just because you have 15,000 people show up for a Meetup, or 250,000 people giving you money, or 500,000 people giving you their e-mail addresses and reading your blog, doesn't necessarily mean that all 15,000 or 250,000 or 500,000 are going to show up on Election Day. And, if that's the case, the skeptic would probably continue, then the two million e-mail addresses Trippi says he's building toward don't mean a whole lot. But, then, this skeptic has probably never worked for Wave Systems or, for that matter, the presidential campaign of Jerry Brown. If he had, he probably would have learned that, when you're raising money from people in small increments, and when those same people think they're being listened to, then those people start to feel like they own the campaign. And, once they start to feel they own the campaign, it's almost impossible to pry them away. In the language of political organizing, you never have to worry about your ones backsliding into twos.
Trippi gets a perfect test of this proposition in late June, right in the middle of the $7.6 million push. Dean goes on NBC's "Meet the Press" and, according to just about every pundit in Washington, falls flat on his face. But the average Dean supporter doesn't quite see it that way. He sees the same candor and forthrightness that won him over in the first place. And, truth be told, he thinks Tim Russert is a bit of an asshole-- constantly trying to trap Dean in contradictions and hypocrisies. Furthermore, he's annoyed at how dismissive the media is when it comes to a campaign that, after all, he partly owns. Pretty soon, he's writing e- mails and ponying up more cash, trying to send a message to the people who would tread on his investment.
"Well, let's see," Trippi says when I suggest that his supporters might not show up when it counts. "They can go to a frickin' meeting once a month, but they aren't going to make it to a caucus, which is--what's that--a meeting once every four years?"
The bad news if you happen to be a Democratic partisan intent on beating George W. Bush is that there's no obvious way to organize yourself to a general-election victory. Unlike the primary, where the goal is to win over one or two million hard-core partisans, winning a general election requires something on the order of 50 million votes--many from the vast political center. Take the most successful Internet operation in history, raise it an order of magnitude, and still you don't come anywhere near the number of votes you need.
And that's under ordinary circumstances. The problem grows considerably worse when you consider that your opponent is a president who plans to raise some $200 million and who has spent four years courting his own conservative base. The combination of the two means Bush is likely to have both the money and the political latitude to woo the millions of swing voters he needs to cement his reelection.
Still, there is hope. Trippi and Dean are now hard at work locking up the more traditional elements of the Democratic base. (Dean is widely expected to receive the endorsement of the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union this week.) Between Dean's Internet operation and the manpower of big labor and various women's and civil rights groups, a nominee Dean might even surpass the turnout operation that put Gore over the top in several states--Delaware, Washington, Wisconsin, Michigan-- where he was running even with Bush or trailing in the final days of the 2000 campaign. "It's not like I just fell off the turnip truck, and I'm an Internet guy, and all I know how to do is the Internet," Trippi says. "Trust me. We're going to reach African Americans. We know how to do that."
And, of course, there is the money. If Dean becomes the Democratic nominee, his Internet fund-raising ability will once again be a crucial factor in his chances of success. "This is like in January, and we're sitting there, and we finally realize it's going to take two million Americans each giving us one hundred dollars online" to raise as much money as Bush, Trippi says. "There's only one medium ... that can change things enough that, if two million people tomorrow morning just woke up and thought, here's your one hundred dollars, it could happen in a day." Surely someone somewhere in the White House has had the exact same thought.