Zephyr Teachout, Internet director for Howard Dean's presidential run, explains how the campaign has used technology to mobilize online activists.
Declan McCullaghFormer 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.
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, 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 , 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
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 and ","
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
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 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
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
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
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
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 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
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 by Dean, such as one in which he advocated unilateral
military action in Bosnia. But he opposes unilateral military action against
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 shows a three-way race, with Dean having no statistical lead
against his nearest two rivals. Another 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.