The cyberbrains behind Howard Dean

Zephyr Teachout, Internet director for Howard Dean's presidential run, explains how the campaign has used technology to mobilize online activists.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
7 min read
Just one year ago, few Americans had heard about an obscure governor who happened to want to be president of the United States.

But a recent surge by his rivals notwithstanding, former Vermont governor Howard Dean is still the man to beat--a startling change that has shaken the foundations of the Democratic Party and is largely due to the Internet.

Even his opponents concede that Dean was the first politician to take full advantage of the self-organizing networks of supporters that sites like Meetup.com and an army of Web loggers can provide. Over 177,000 people are registered for Dean get-togethers through Meetup.com, while Wesley Clark boasts just 58,900 and John Kerry a mere 18,900.

It's not that Howard Dean was made for the Internet. It's more like the Internet was made for politicians like Howard Dean who have chosen to campaign against the Washington, D.C., establishment. If today's Internet had been around at the time, Newt Gingrich might have employed the same tactics in 1994 when trying to take over the House of Representatives. Republican Party activists aren't nearly angry enough to make it work today.

Dean's activists are. To understand how his campaign has mobilized online activists, CNET News.com spoke with Zephyr Teachout, Dean's director of Internet organizing, a few days before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19.

Q: Where would Howard Dean be today without the Internet?
A: I think there is no question that the new people who have been brought in through the Internet are the real powers behind the Dean campaign. So it is essential.

Is using the Internet for organizing and fundraising really new? Campaigns like John McCain's have successfully raised money and organized online. As far back as 1992, campaigns were using FTP sites. What makes Dean different?
This is sort of a radical change. What we are doing is using the Internet to encourage people to organize offline--the great power is allowing people ways to find each other and have meetings offline. The energy that comes out from these offline meetings will be driving our campaign, so every month there are about 4,000 meetings organized online through both Meetup.com and "Get Local," our online event creation service. The Internet allows these people to find each other, but ultimately the campaign is happening offline. That is the big difference. We are taking up the next step and encouraging people to use the online (world) as well as organizing offline and that is why this is so extraordinary.

How many volunteers have you mobilized through the Net or do you have in your database? The Meetup.com list of Dean supporters shows about 180,000.
Exactly. It's about 180,000. There are about 100,000 who use Get Local, about 50,000 displayed as active volunteers on DeanLink so other supporters can find them. There is a lot of overlap there, but we estimate that about a quarter million people have taken at least one action beyond giving money for Dean in the past year.

Is the number of volunteers consistent with what you expected a year ago?
You know, it is funny because we constantly had high expectations and constantly have been blown away. I remember when (campaign manager) Joe Trippi said to me, "If you could just get 100,000 people on Meetup.com then we can win the election." And we already have 180,000. They are really quite addicted. Once people realize how politically powerful they are, quickly that becomes vital not just online but offline. People tell their friends, who then come online to sign up.

You posted to the campaign Web log, saying that you are trying to get volunteers to show up in Iowa. Do you have any idea how many people are going to come?
We expect 3,500. The Internet was critical for that. The numbers are rising, yesterday alone 200 people signed up to go to Iowa. The last train to Iowa, full of volunteers boarded (Wednesday), I believe, from California.

Does Dean get involved in the daily operations of his Web site?

The key is that we are using the tools to allow for a real shift of political power to people that we treat as people, as more than voters.
No. He does blog sometimes. The important thing is that we have provided these tools. Now technology has matured to such a point that these tools are available to anyone. The key is that we are using the tools to allow for a real shift of political power to people that we treat as people, as more than voters.

What do you think about the importance of the Internet compared to other media like television, both right now and then looking ahead one or two elections?
I think we all see this as a redemocratization. The media will always have its place, but it doesn't allow the people to engage. The Internet is really essential for people to achieve some more power with the process.

You talk about returning power to the people. But is this just hype or is it really happening? How are special interest politics being undermined by the rise of Internet organizing?
They are, I mean, in the past people have been beholden to people who can give them money. Most politicians have to spend 70 percent to 80 percent of their time with people who can afford writing $2,000 checks. That is a really small group of Americans. Now New Orleans for Dean has the power of 10 of those people writing $2,000 checks but collectively hundreds of them have raised that much money. They have marched, they have canvassed, and they are a real political power. So when Governor Dean is President Dean, he is not going to be beholden to the 100 bucks to get rid of George Bush. That does change the structure of politics because you're bound to think differently and act differently depending on who puts you in those positions of power.

How important is your online acceptance of credit cards, especially your recurring billing feature? Probably four years ago not as many people were as willing to type in their credit card numbers online.
I think it is very important. There are various security systems that people are comfortable with. I think the security of our system has been really essential so you could log in through the Internet.

How much money have you raised so far? CNN was projecting $40 million for 2003, just $10 million behind President Bush.
I do not know that those figures have been released for 2003.

What hardware and software do you use for your Web site?
We have so many different parts of our site, right now. We actually build software here.

The Internet is really essential for people to achieve some more power with the process.
We have three full-time programmers and our database team has people with (scripting language) PHP and we have a bunch of volunteer coders, as well as a whole community of over 100 people working in open source on Dean-related projects. I am not the person that knows hardware.

How much open-source software do you use compared to, say, Microsoft products?
Oh good question. We have so many different products right now. You are moving way beyond my (expertise).

So the Internet has helped to build Howard Dean up. Is there now a backlash? I'm seeing bloggers higlighting past comments by Dean, such as one in which he advocated unilateral military action in Bosnia. But he opposes unilateral military action against Iraq.
Oh, I don't think there is a backlash. Sure, across the board you see a lot of attacks coming since Dean has been so strong. That means opening yourself up to attack, but the responses are all the more powerful.

A Zogby poll in Iowa shows a three-way race, with Dean having no statistical lead against his nearest two rivals. Another poll shows Dean sliding in New Hamphire. What's the mood in the campaign like right now?
Everybody is working round-the-clock but everybody is really excited. One thing that we have about to happen is having lots of aggressive (volunteers) going to Iowa. Over these past few days we had a couple hundred here, a couple of hundred there. In this upcoming weekend, we have over 2,000 and I think you are going to see a real surge based on the person-to-person work they are doing. We can't wait. It is pretty exciting. We have been working for a year towards this and finally have it here.

So the mood isn't less optimistic?
No, no--I think you have probably now seen every attack on us has just strengthened us in the long term. Right now, with Dean being attacked in so many ways, (he is) showing so much strength and leadership and grassroots is definitely showing so much strength and leadership. I think it has just reinvigorated all of us because of what we are doing. It is pretty cool.

One more question. Is Dean a Mac guy or a PC guy?
He is a PC guy.