Howard Dean and the Electoral Machine: Daniel Kreiss Reveals the History of the Democrats and New Media
Obama and Romney own 2012 – they essentially bought it – having spent record sums of money on advertising and campaign stratagems designed to magnetize our attentions and motivate them towards a desired set of actions. As year end features and retrospectives squeeze their way into our nation's newspapers, one worn out phenomenon will predictably dominate the annual backward glance: the election.
In the ensuing journalistic reflections that accompany a month's distance from an election (conveniently situated at pensive years end), one name likely to allude treatment is Howard Dean. Ironically, few non-candidate election figures merit more consideration: “he should take a large credit in history in putting together the electoral party machine that is still in place today” – so says Daneil Kreiss. An Assistant Professor of Mass Communications and Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, Professor Kreiss stopped by American University last Tuesday and explained why, discussing his new book, Taking our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Barak Obama to Howard Dean.
If you are too young to remember the 2004 Democratic primary race then Dean's name might not mean much to you. If you can remember, then you might only recall one moment; that infamous rally speech turned shriek, after placing third in the Iowa caucuses, effectively ending the candidates meteoric rise into the political spotlight. That meteoric rise, however, was the result of remarkable foresight, a visionary embrace of new media opportunities implemented with infrastructural coordination. The executing team of emerging campaign stars would go on to staff the '08 Obama, Clinton, and Edwards campaigns, as well as found instrumental firms such as Blue State Digital.
Dean, the former six term governor from New Hampshire, was a second tier candidate and unknown late in 2002. By 2004, he had managed to rise to the level of democratic front runner, raise a record 50 million dollars in a primary campaign, and, despite underperforming in Iowa, foster a political apparatus later wielded to victory by both the Obama 2008 and 2012 campaigns (The '08 Obama run refined Dean's new media strategies to the tune of 50 million dollars raised in a single month of primary campaigning).
“Many scholarly accounts tend to be ahistorical, tend to focus on particular election cycles, and then, after the election ends, the journalists and scholars go home. No one thinks about what happens the day after the election.” Kreiss has thought a lot about it. In 2004, a masters student in journalism at Stanford, Kreiss caught a ride from San Francisco to Iowa with some Dean staffers in hopes of experiencing the caucuses. That interaction kicked off nearly a decade's worth of research into the development of the modern Democratic electoral operating system. By Kreiss' account, it was the work that Howard Dean and his former staffers did in the days, months, and years between elections that dramatically changed the future presidential fortunes of the party.
Two new media tools in play during Dean's primary run and developed by his campaign were DeanLink, a social networking tool that allowed Dean supporters to organize and connect with one another based on shared interests (Kreiss cites the humerous example “Pug owners for Dean”), and Project Commons, a hybrid event planning and social networking platform used by staffers (later, the foundation for my.barakobama.com). Also, surrounding Dean's run from its inception, a strong base of bloggers who saw the candidate's anti-Iraq stance as ray of hope for the democratic party (John Kerry and John Edwards both signed the 2002 Iraq War Resolution) took to independently organizing support for the candidate.
The trick for Dean's staff was to coordinate their tools and the independently generated activity surrounding the candidate into a single streamlined movement. The Dean team succeeded on many levels, but also faltered, unable to seamlessly connect platforms of activity creating for occasionally frustrating user experiences and communication break downs.
Rather then these efforts ending with the Dean run, both man and the team transitioned to a focus on the democratic party itself in the months after the election. In 2005 two big post election moves take place: Dean gets elected to head of the Democratic National Committee and four of his staffers go on to found Blue State Digital -- a commercial campaign software and platforming firm that crafts tools exclusively for use by the Democratic party. Blue State kept the networking innovations they created during Dean's run alive. Dean then employed Blue State to help with two immense DNC projects: the development of a national voter registration data base (called Vote Builder) and Party Builder – a streamlined, tested, and more equipped update of the social networking platforms in play during Dean's campaign, now able to be used by any democratic campaign.
“I can't stress enough how much of a technical and social accomplishment [vote builder] was.” For Kreiss, vote builder is the keystone of the Dean legacy, a legacy he believes has gone "less than heralded in democratic party circles.” If we fast forward to the Obama campaigns we can see why.
Aside from the fact that the guy running Obama's new media department in 2008, serving as the chief digital strategist in 2012, is a former Dean staffer (Joe Rospars -- also a co founder of BSD), and the reality that my.barakobama.com is a Party Builder platform born out of platforms like Dean Link and Dean's Project Commons, the ability of Barak Obama's campaign to motivate historic voting turn outs and micro target undecided members of the electorate comes from the website optimization enabled by Vote Bulider. The interconnected state databases constantly get updated with public information such as real estate records, vehicle registration records, coupled with canvasing records (conversations that take place during door to door effortsl), and pay-for commercial information – magazine subscription lists, credit card lists, grocery club card lists etc. According to Kreiss, the firms selling the commerical information “claim to have 500 – 600 pieces of data on every member of the electorate.”
Vote Builder becomes a medium for inputing and orangizing all this information, aggregated from a local level, into an intelligible platform, enabling the creation of voter profiles (what an independent voter looks like in data compared to an unwavering voter, for example) and customized website content that adapts to the specific users engaging the site. “Optimization,” according to Obama's 2008 chief technology officer Michael Slaby, accounted, in that election, for 57 million dollars saved. That's roughly the total amount spent in the combined state level campaign's for battle grounds Florida and Ohio.
Innovations begun and nurtured under the 2004 Dean campaign manifest in more modern electoral realities than a single blog post could ever address. Kreiss' lecture and book miraculously distill a history of those realities. As he says, “it was all this work done in between elections that really built the infrastructure for Obama's run in 2008.” The key word being infrastructure. Kreiss' most recent work centers on Howard Dean and Barak Obama, but an equally important theme of his book and the talk he gave Tuesday is the dispelling of the notion that new media technology is the cause of new social and political movements.
People are always the source of change, tools are developed and adopted in the effort to actualize change. New media and new technology without a fully coordinated operational schematic, is the difference between Howard Dean's 2004 failed run and Obama's successful runs. Yet, were it not for the Dean example and the subsequent infrastructure he helped to develop for the party, the fate of the former Jr. Senator from Illinois might have been different.
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