Joe Trippi, campaign manager for former Vermont governor and presidential hopeful Howard Dean, chats with MSNBC.com about his candidate’s progress and how they’re using the Internet to build support. Dean, once cast as an underdog for the Democratic nomination, has amassed sizeable grassroots support, recently won an unofficial online primary, and is on the verge of collecting more money in campaign donations than any of the other Democratic candidates in the second quarter. Chat producer Will Femia moderates using questions from the audience.
Note: This chat was originally Webcast as live streaming audio. Below is the transcript of that audio with slight edits made to adjust for the difference between spoken and written language.
Will Femia: Welcome Mr. Trippi.
Joe Trippi: It’s great to be here, thanks for having me.
Will Femia: Let’s start with a nice easy one from Torrance, California asking how to be a part of the campaign. And that seems like a great place to begin to talk about your use of the Internet in recruiting supporters, so I wonder if we could just start off with an overview of that.
Joe Trippi: How to get involved is pretty simple. The first step would be to go to our Website, www.DeanForAmerica.com. You can sign up there, there are all kinds of way. We have a “get local” component of our Website where you can look at and join organizing events or rallies or leafleting in your local area and you can even create your own task or event or something that you want to do and have other people over the Net sign up and meet you where you want to meet and go leaflet or whatever campaign task you want to do.
Our campaign is built on empowering people to self organize and to make a difference in the campaign themselves, so we’ve developed a lot of tools on the Internet that you can do that with.
The other one, of course, which has become more well known, is MeetUp.com. And you can access that, again, by going to our website, and go to monthly meetings and join with other Dean supporters in getting together and organizing. So there are plenty of ways to get involved.
Will Femia: Jill in L.A. wants to know what prompted you to use the Internet. Was it a conscious decision from the beginning to use the Web to assemble grassroots support, or were there Howard Dean unofficial Weblogs already up and running that made you say, “Hey, we should get into this.”
Joe Trippi: Well, the campaign made a very conscious decision to use the Net, and I had been well aware of the blogs that were out there, several of them supporting Dean as early as April of last year. If you go back in April, and go back in the archives of, like, the MyDD blog, you’ll see me commenting, I’m in the comments section telling people about Dean over the Net back in April. Now almost a year ago… well, over a year ago. Gosh, I forgot it’s been a year.
I didn’t join the campaign until February of this year, and people need to remember that in January of this year we had a staff of seven people and 157,000 dollars in the bank and there wasn’t a whole lot we could do other than just get out to Iowa, pay for the governor’s travel out to Iowa and New Hampshire.
But for a year prior to that and all the way up, we had been active on the Net and made a conscious decision that we were going to build a grassroots organization and use the Net to be a very important part of that. Again, we started that probably, in earnest, probably in February of this year.
Will Femia: Shelly Slater of Springfield, Massachusetts, asks, “Aren’t you concerned that you’re giving up too much control over your candidate’s image by encouraging all these start-up groups? How do you know you’re being well represented?” Someone else mentioned not wanting to “misrepresent Doctor Dean’s message by filtering it through me.”
Joe Trippi: Part of the thing that you have to do is you’ve got to let go. You’ve got to empower people and really let people actively participate in our democracy again, and actively participate as an American community again. You have to trust that American community, and you have to trust the people who are out there that when they participate and when they get involved they’re going to do so responsibly.
Our campaign has been willing to do that, we’re letting go. That’s why our campaign’s taking off the way it has in terms of getting so many people involved. You can’t have a command and control structure where I’m ordering my state directors to order county directors who then give orders to precinct workers and then you’re just robots in the machine. That’s not the way to do this.
The Internet’s the first way to actually have a two way communication within the organization. Our people can come to our blog, tell us what they think we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong. We can tell them what we’re trying to do this week and what our goals are.
Occasionally people are going to get over enthusiastic and do something the campaign wouldn’t want them to do, and we’ll have to deal with that. That’s part of the risk of doing it this way. But I think we’re the first campaign in history who’s decided we are going to do this this way.
And I have to tell you as someone who’s been involved in six presidential campaigns where I was taught the command and control way of doing things, it’s very difficult to let go. I mean for me, it’s very difficult to do it. Every once in a while I catch myself trying to turn the wheel a little bit more one way or another and I just have to remind myself to take my hands off the steering wheel.
In terms of the messaging, the messaging in the end is Governor Dean. He’s the one that we’re all putting up on our shoulders. It is a people powered campaign, we call it “People Powered Howard,” but he’s the one that controls … he’s got a big enough megaphone now given the money that came in in the last few days, that we’re not worried about his message being blurred. Our message is that we’re a campaign of the people, so it’s pretty hard for the people to screw that up.
Will Femia: Are you concerned at all that in being seen as the “Internet candidate” that you’re automatically placing yourself on the fringe? Does the Internet have enough credibility for a presidential candidate?
Joe Trippi: Well, the Internet is looking more and more like America every day. We’ve got to do a lot more work there and make sure that the Net…whether it’s WiFi, 80211…
I think WiFi would be a great way to get the Net into areas that don’t have it right now, that are underrepresented on the Internet -and a very cheap way to do it. But it’s still becoming more like the rest of America every day. The campaign’s even thought about setting up WiFi hot spots and things, but we’re still a ways from doing that.
The other point is, it’s like before we had television where a candidate would go out there, like Bobby Kennedy, and the first people to sign up would be young students and those young students would go knocking on doors and who are the doors they’re knocking on? They’re knocking on the doors of seniors and they’re knocking on the doors of Americans and those people say, “Yeah, I want to join,” and the campaign grows and it looks more like everybody’s participating because everybody is all of a sudden. But the early folks were young students back then.
What happened with us on the Net is the same thing. We had the Internet -it’s an incredible tool for us, it’s an incredible platform to get people to organize, but what are they doing with it? Well, in Austin, Texas, we only have 481 e-mail addresses. We e-mailed to those folks, we said the governor’s coming to Austin, Texas. They went out and leafleted the Latino community. They leafleted all of Austin, they put posters up, and we had a crowd of 3,200 people that was built by roughly 400 people on our e-mail list with no advance team. That’s 3,200 people that made up a lot of people who don’t have computers, who showed up, heard Governor Dean speak, and signed up on our snail mail list.
So everything’s growing. It’s not just that we’ve gone from 50,000 online volunteers to 150,000 online volunteers in three weeks, but the list of people from around the country that don’t own computers even has grown dramatically. We had 200,000 dollars come in in the last few days in snail mail, which we’ve never had happen before. And those are people who obviously didn’t go to the Net and contribute.
So all I’m saying is, yeah, that would have been a fair thing to say about us back in February or March. It’s not fair anymore. We’ve really become a lot stronger and a lot bigger than that.
Will Femia: Adam in Somerville, Massachusetts wants to know if we can expect a White House blog at the end of all of this.
Joe Trippi: Yeah, actually, Governor Dean blogged about that last night on our Weblog. That’s anther place you can go, www.BlogForAmerica.com, that’s our Weblog. Governor Dean said last night, and kind of surprised me because I didn’t know the answer to this, which often happens with him, he blogged that if he gets to the White House there will be a White House blog in 2005.
Will Femia: I got a look at a draft of Eric Alterman’s column today and he, in the beginning, warns Dean against not kissing up to mainstream media. Is your Web campaign a sign that you or he holds traditional media in low regard and can you win without their favor, and can you play their game without offending your supporters, who, looking at this list of questions I have before me, aren’t all that impressed with mainstream media.
Joe Trippi: I think we’ve proven that a lot of what the mainstream thinks, whether it’s media or Washington establishment, which I put sometimes in the same box -y’know, their read on what happened on the Russert interview was that some horrible thing had happened and the governor’s candidacy was in ruins. No one else thought that. That day our online contributions went up dramatically, in fact it was a record.
The one thing we’ve recognized from the beginning is how important it is that the blogging community and just the Net and our own blog and our own Website are unfiltered. There are things people can read without somebody else telling them what to think about it. Or without just cutting out a piece of what the governor said and just twisting it. And in that sense, the Net is a very powerful tool. And Dean TV, that we started, which you need to have a broadband, high speed connection for, it’s 24 hours of just speeches, rallies, things that the governor is doing today, “day in the life” kind of view of the governor’s campaign, but it’s totally unfiltered. You get to look at what he said, and you decided for yourself what it means. You decide what he said. And if you don’t like it, you vote against us, if you like it, you join our campaign.
The media, a lot of it’s just not news anymore. It’s so much opinion, and it’s an echo chamber. You take a part of a line that the governor said and twist it to your own view and say, “This is what he meant,” and it wasn’t at all what he meant. So in that sense, yeah, the Net is incredible as a way to reach -what’s obviously happened here is that somehow we’re reaching hundreds of thousands of people who are joining up who understand what Governor Dean is really about.
People understand that we’re not George McGovern liberal. We’re against the Iraqi war, but they know full well if they research us that you cannot define Howard Dean ideologically. In that sense, one of the most important things about this campaign is to try to expose the meaningless political vocabulary of left/right, liberal/conservative that’s just left our politics vacant. We’re trying to instill a politics of meaning again, with being involved and a sense of common purpose. This country was built on not, “What’s in it for me?” but, “How can we all work together to provide a greater common good and make this place better?” And this campaign is essentially about that. It’s essentially about getting people to understand that there is a responsibility to get involved in self government. You can’t have self government without participation of the people and without their voices being heard.
But it’s a two way street. We’ve got to get our message out unfiltered and we need people who hear that message and respond to it to actively do something, to actively give time to this campaign or actively contribute to it. Otherwise we won’t get there.
Will Femia: Let’s talk for a bit about your fellow Democratic contenders.
Joe Trippi: Do we have to?
Will Femia: I have an interesting pair of sort of juxtaposing questions. One writes, “How can [Dean] hope to unify the Democratic Party if he continues to make such caustic and arrogant remarks about other Democrats at this stage of the campaign?” The other one asks, “How do you balance the need to shake up and talk tough about how the Democrats are laying down on the job with the fact that if you completely discredit your competition in the primary you may be helping Bush in the long run?”
Joe Trippi: Well, if we win the nomination we won’t be helping George Bush. This is another two way thing. Let’s get down to brass tacks here. These guys all have been planning a run for the presidency from Washington, D.C. for years. John Kerry’s been planning it since 1988 that I know of, and Gephardt ran in 1988. They all had their plans to run for president and something happened along the way. All their plans were disrupted by something they never saw coming, a guy named Howard Dean, the governor of Vermont, and the way people were responding to him.
They haven’t been real happy about that, and most of the attacks they make on us have nothing to do with… John Kerry’s not worried about whether Howard Dean is fit to be Commander in Chief. What he’s worried about is that Howard Dean may upset his plans to be Commander in Chief. So it’s a primary campaign, and these folks are upset that we’re in their way, and we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to take a stand for the principles of the party, and for people participating in their democracy again. And I think that’s a very scary thing to folks that had plans that didn’t include this kind of candidacy when they were putting their campaigns together.
Our view is that what we have to do to defeat George Bush is simple. How are you going to defeat a guy with 250-300 million dollars? Well, it’s pretty simple if a million Americans or two million Americans are actively involved, and they contribute 50 dollars or 100 dollars to that campaign and contribute some time, that’s 200 million dollars. It sounds audacious and it sounds impossible, and in fact, without the Net it would be impossible. If you tried to get two million Americans, 1000 of them a night at a big dinner where they give 100 dollars, you’d have to do that for 2000 nights, like the better part of six years to get 200 million dollars. So there’s no way to do it, it’s never been done before. But there is a medium where it is possible.
Two million Americans isn’t that big a number, even on the Internet. And if you start working at it today and build that organization, build that grassroots campaign, build that grassroots movement, it can happen. We’ve tripled from 50,000 people to 150,000 people in three weeks. So if we can swell our ranks again, from 150 to 450 thousand Americans in three or four months, and then double it by December 31st, that’s a million Americans who will be actively involved in the Dean campaign. Many of those people will contribute time, many of them will contribute money. If that happens, we will not only win the nomination, but by the time we get to November, we will have two or three million Americans in that organization and that … you cannot stop that many Americans working for a common purpose. That will not be stopped. We will beat him in November.
From the very beginning of this campaign that was the underpinning, and that was why from the very beginning we focused on the Internet so much. The real danger here is that the rest of these guys destroy that. Because if they, by attacking Howard Dean, for their own purposes because they want to get to the White House and they want the nomination, if they destroy that, the question is, how are they going to beat George Bush?
Will Femia: Having heard that answer I can sort of anticipate this next one. A lot of people are writing in less concerned about the Democrats than they are about what the Bush campaign will have to say about Howard Dean and how they’ll try to portray him. Including, “As a peacenik, he’ll be soft on terrorism,” writes Clay in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, or “He’ll push the gay agenda” because of his support for civil unions in Vermont, or… well, let’s start with those.
Joe Trippi: The two questions juxtaposed are actually a good thing. To beat Bush you’re going to have to be very tough, you’re going to have to fight hard, and you’re going to have to speak out loud and clear and give people a clear difference. The fact that we’re the candidate in the Democratic Party right now who’s doing that is another reason so many people are supporting us. You cannot defeat Bush… getting into the money situation, you have to have a strong grassroots movement to do it, you have to have people contributing time and money, but more than that, you’ve got to take this to where it really needs to go.
What this is about, this campaign for 2004 is really about what kind of country we’re going to be for a very long time. Whether we’re going to reclaim our destiny as an idealistic moral force in the world, that has always, always defeated any threat more because of our ideals —we have a strong military and a willingness to use it when necessary -and reclaim our destiny as a country that is an American community where it’s not just enough to have a great car, you’re doing something for the better good of this country and your local community.
All that’s been lost in the last 22 years. This didn’t just happen, it’s not just George Bush who did it, but we’re losing it. And this campaign is about reclaiming it. Once you put this in those terms, either Americans are going to respond to that and return to policies and ideas that reclaim our destiny and all that it means to be an American, or we’re in a world of hurt and George Bush is going to win. And it has to be on that high ground.
We defeated Communism because we had a strong military and because we used it from time to time when we had to. But the Berlin Wall fell without a shot, Poland fell, and the Soviet Union collapsed, because the idea of communism … people stopped believing it in those countries and they recognized the better ideal that America and its liberal democracy had shown the world. And that’s happened everywhere and every time we’ve ever done it throughout our history. It’s time to do that again.
Terrorism is going to be a ten year war, a fifty year war. We’re going to have to have a strong military. We’re going to have to have credibility when we use it and make sure that the American people understand why we’re using it when we do. But in the end, it’s not enough that we stand for equality of women here at home, we have to stand for equality of women around the globe. It’s not enough that this country is for equality of minorities here at home, we have to ensure and project across the globe that minorities need to be protected everywhere. Kurds for instance. Everywhere.
If you start projecting those ideas around the world again. We will, over time, defeat terrorism. We’ll have to use the military occasionally to do it, but that’s a better way to do this than the way the president is doing it with a pre-emptive unilateral doctrine. So it’s making that case, and making it at a very high level about what this country’s about. And by the way, if you’re making that case, then let’s go to civil unions. If you’re making the case that rights under the law for minorities are equal everywhere, then it has to be equal here at home as well. And that’s everybody. Regardless of what anybody thinks of any one group, the Constitution says we’re all created equal and we all have inalienable rights, and they ought to have the same rights we do, everybody.
So that’s what this candidacy is about. It’s about returning to those real principles and ideals and against people’s prejudices and against… What the president plays on is the uglier side of folks. We’re appealing to the best in America. And if we do that and we have millions of Americans with us that are prepared to reclaim our country’s destiny, we’ll win. We’ll win the nomination and we’ll defeat the president.
To do that we’ve got to change Washington a lot. We’ve got to get rid of the special interest money. And how do you do that? Well look. We’re not running around chasing a lot of big corporate or special interest money. This is a campaign that will be beholden to none of those folks because of the number of people in America who are responding and sending us money. And if we continue to do that, we’re going to change this country together.
Will Femia: We’ve run into the half hour mark really quickly it seems, with a jillion questions left, so we’d certainly love to have you back again as the campaign progresses.
Joe Trippi: I’d be happy to come back any time.
Will Femia: I wonder if we could just do some closing comments, then, to wrap us up.
Joe Trippi: This is the great grassroots campaign of our era and I invite everybody to check us out and get involved. Together we really can change this country for the better. Howard Dean is going to stand on principle. I hope you’ll join our campaign in doing that. Again, the two sites I urge people to check out would be www.DeanForAmerica.com and www.BlogForAmerica.com.
I really appreciate the opportunity to do this interview.
Will Femia: Thanks very much Joe, I appreciate your time.
Joe Trippi: Thank you.