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Behind Dean’s win on the Web

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Imagine for a moment that you have fallen in love with Howard Dean. Not literally, but figuratively and politically speaking. In fact, you’ve fallen so in love that you’ve decided to download and print Dean campaign posters and fliers from the Internet and subsequently distribute them at a local market. The only hitch is, you don’t want to go on this first date alone. You need a companion to work with you, someone who’s also fallen in love with Dean, someone you can trust and understand.

ENTER ZEPHYR Teachout, Dean’s director of online organizing. She too has fallen for Dean, so much so in fact that she auctioned off all her belongings and moved to Dean’s Burlington campaign headquarters last December. There, she worked her way through the research and field operations departments before landing in Dean’s history making online operation.

Typical for this campaign, Teachout was thrust into a position of power and importance despite the fact that she had little prior Internet experience.

Of Campaign Manager Joe Trippi, who thrust her there, she says, “I thought he was crazy … but I like doing things I don’t really know how to do.”

That same trait led this mid-thirties former lawyer and Vermont native on a similarly epic adventure a few years ago. While Teachout could have told you little about online organizing last January, she could have told you a good bit about riding her bike across the country, on a whim and in the wrong direction (Teachout rode East to West against the wind).

In fact, referring to Zephyr Teachout by her last name hardly fits her style. She has spunk and energy, but she’s not for formality or reserve. With Teachout you get enthusiasm and adventure and it is those traits that led her to buy into the Dean campaign’s philosophy of empowering supporters by giving them the tools and information they need to spread Dean’s message.

In that vein, Teachout helped lead numerous phases of the Dean Internet revolution, which is generally agreed to be the most successful use of the Web to date in a national political campaign.

Teachout started with list-serves, the Internet-based e-mailing lists people can register for and use to communicate. In January, there were 23 Dean lists; now there are more than 300. Teachout then led in the creation of the Dean campaign’s “get local tools,” online information and campaign materials that supporters can use to organize their own events. Since June 1, more than 5,000 events have been organized with these tools. Says Teachout, “this is the stuff that Doonesbury is making fun of which we are disgustingly proud of.”

However, it is Teachout’s most recent project that really gets her going. Having already supplied the online tools needed to print and post fliers or hold a Meet-up (a monthly gathering of Dean supporters), Teachout turned to an unusual source for inspiration. Wanting to “encourage [online] activity rather than get scared that [online supporters] were doing something weird,” she turned to dating software and the Internet dating site Friendster for inspiration. In Teachout’s words, “social software is far better for organizing than it is for dating.”

Her logic: Daters find each other and then quit looking while organizers want to find numerous people and new people constantly. Thus, enter Dean Link, the latest addition to Dean’s hyper-successful Web sites and the source of much interoffice joking. So far, more than 12,000 people have agreed with Zephyr’s logic.

On Dean Link you can find not only people who support Dean, but you can find supporters who live near you. You can view their pictures and look for individuals with similar topical or organizational interests. In short, a Dean supporter can find a buddy or five or 20 and feel secure in whom they have found. While Dean staffers make fun of this tool, calling it “Dean Dates,” Zephyr argues that every time supporters link up, a new Dean community is built, a community that might hold a Meet-Up and interact and convince others to vote for Dean.


For the innocent and daring Teachout, Dean Link is the culmination of a long process and she promises there is more to come. Dean Space, for example, which will tie together hundreds of independent Dean Web sites and provide the campaign with yet another online community. The bonus here: Dean Link allows the campaign to monitor what all the Dean related Web sites are talking about, in essence creating an internal polling unit within which to distribute ideas and test policy proposals.

Indeed, with Zephyr at the helm, it’s unlikely the campaign won’t explore just about every online organizing opportunity. She isn’t one to be easily discouraged and with more than 460,000 online supporters she has no reason to worry.

Felix Schein is an MSNBC producer embedded with the Howard Dean campaign.