You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Dean 2.0

What Barack Obama owes to people-powered Howard.

One of Barack Obama's last events before the New Hampshire primary took place in the town of Rochester, where hundreds of people had gathered in an old theater to hear him speak. Obama was two minutes into his remarks when a chant suddenly erupted from the rear. "Abortion is Obama-nation! Abortion is Obama-nation!" the protestors yelled. The people of Rochester promptly jeered.

It was, in other words, a perfect chance for Obama to showcase his powers of conciliation. "You've made your point. ... I'll be happy to talk to you afterwards," he said, no more agitated than if he were fending off a feisty senior. When the crowd broke into a ferocious counter-chant, he added: "Look everybody, hold up. Hold up, hold up, hold up. ... Nobody's hearing each other. To the folks who are opposed to abortion, I understand your position. But this isn't going to solve anything." Before long, the protesters had been hustled off, and Obama resumed his speech. But then he doubled back for one last thought. "You know, some people got organized to do that," he reflected. "That's part of the American tradition."

Amid all the gravity-defying uplift of his campaign, it's easy to forget that Obama is an organizer at heart—a believer in the power of concerted action to bring tangible results. Certainly, that's the way he sees himself. Obama never fails to remind voters of the years he spent as a community organizer in Chicago, calling it "the best education I ever had." He spends several minutes introducing his local field staff at each event, after which he surveys the room for undecided voters and urges supporters to fill out "pledge cards," which help produce a precinct-by-precinct tally of expected votes.

In this respect, the best analogy for Obama may not be a famously inspirational figure like Robert Kennedy or Eugene McCarthy, but the famously disappointing Howard Dean. Like Obama, Dean built a movement on the back of a cuttingedge organization. But it was ultimately the flaws in that same organization that did Dean in. And so, improbable as it may sound, Barack Obama's presidential hopes may hinge not on what he's learned from New Hampshire, but on what he's learned from the Dean campaign.

TWO DAYS BEFORE the Iowa caucuses, I joined an Obama precinct captain as she canvassed Ankeny, a Republican-leaning suburb of Des Moines. The first door we knocked on belonged to the Mefford family—Biden supporters who said they liked Obama but worried about his inexperience. We then walked to our second house, a family of Republicans named Voss. Rhonda Voss said she and her husband were definitely caucusing for Obama. Her teenage son Jordan said he would, too. (Jordan had turned his parents on to Obama in the first place.) The Vosses even volunteered to show up 90 minutes early to greet fellow caucus-goers.

On caucus night in Ankeny, things initially played out according to plan. The Vosses showed up early, then joined nearly 90 of their neighbors to stand for Obama. The Meffords trooped to the Biden group, which, owing to its anemic size (about eight caucus-goers), had been relegated to the hallway. After Biden was deemed "non-viable," the Meffords left to support Hillary Clinton.

But something interesting had happened by the time I checked in on the Obama crowd again: The Meffords had suddenly materialized. I later learned that Jordan Voss had nudged Mike Mefford onto the Obama bandwagon. Not long after, Mefford's wife Carol decided to join him. This proved to be a turning point. When all the bodies were counted, John Edwards had edged Clinton by a single vote, denying her a critical delegate and helping ensure her third-place finish. (Edwards only beat her by seven delegates in all of Iowa.)

LISTENING TO JORDAN VOSS reminded me of another teenager I'd once written about: Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. Tomkins was a 14-year-old from Sitka, Alaska, when he became a Dean supporter in 2003. By November of that year, he had personally recruited an astounding 463 fellow Deaniacs, mostly by connecting with them online. It had looked like the foundation of a massive political movement.

The brains behind this effort was Dean strategist Joe Trippi, who spent the 1980s as an organizer for Walter Mondale and Gary Hart and much of the late '90s as an insomniac contributor to online chat-rooms. Trippi brought a key insight to the Dean campaign: If supporters felt invested in a campaign the way Web geeks felt invested in online communities, they would devote an astonishing amount of effort to helping their candidate win.

Trippi felt that, by organizing this way, he could attract hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of die-hards. That's a tiny fraction of the U. S. population. But it's a staggering number for a political campaign. Dean attracted only 250,000 donors, yet he shattered fund-raising records. Every time the press or a rival so much as looked at his candidate crosswise, Trippi would blitz his database with another appeal, and the aggrieved Deaniacs would pony up.

As it happens, Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, was a longtime friend of Trippi's. Axelrod was sympathetic to Trippi's ideas but hyper-conscious of the Dean campaign's failures. "They aroused a great deal of enthusiasm," Axelrod told me at a recent Obama event. "But I don't think they developed a way to turn [the enthusiasm] into tangible action, into value to the campaign in terms of organization."

There were two failures in particular. The first was that Dean's base was far too narrow. With only a few exceptions, according to a subsequent Pew Research Center poll, the Deaniacs resided on the left of the political spectrum. The problem this created was one of basic math: Once you get that far out of the mainstream, the pool of potential supporters is relatively shallow, meaning you need to claim a large fraction of them in order to succeed.

So, rather than tacking left, the Obama campaign went straight up the middle, where a much larger universe of potential voters awaited. One of the most remarkable political stories of the last generation or so is the rise of a massive bloc of people who, by ideology or disposition, should be voting Democratic but, for whatever reason, aren't. This includes apolitical young people, nominal Democrats who rarely turn out, and, more recently, moderate independents and Republicans like the Vosses. Poll after poll shows that these people favor Democratic positions on most key issues. (The New Republic's John Judis once wrote a book arguing that the last group would help Democrats cement a long-term majority.)

The beauty of looking for votes in these places rather than the places Dean sought them was that it gave Obama a much higher margin for error. Unlike Dean, Obama didn't need a massive percentage of the voters he was courting, or even a majority. He could win a small fraction of them and still run up huge numbers—500,000 donors nationwide, many more online supporters. This helps explain how he won Iowa.

IF THAT HAD BEEN the only mistake Trippi and company made, Dean might have been the nominee. But to that one they added a second: They assumed that an online community could translate seamlessly into the real world. In a sense, they believed the Internet had repealed the laws of geography, so that an offline Dean supporter in Ankeny would be no different than an online supporter in Seattle. This was the assumption that inspired such ideas as bringing thousands of out-of-state volunteers to Iowa days before the caucuses.

For its part, the Obama campaign understood that geography is fundamental. People are more likely to trust someone they can relate to, and a big part of that is mere proximity. Obama's online community was a godsend--it attracted hordes of enthusiasts, from whom campaign manager David Plouffe raised gobs of money using Trippi-like solicitations. But, to really work, the online community would have to be folded into a concrete ground organization.

Whenever possible, the Obama campaign insisted that Iowans communicate with Iowans. "An activist in a given precinct or town knew more about the caucuses in their local area than we would," says Paul Tewes, Obama's state director. Tewes remembers calling an Iowa volunteer who helped set up an event in March: "He said, 'I can't believe all the Republicans there.' I said, 'How could you tell?' He said, 'Paul, I've lived here all my life. I know who they are.'" (Tewes nonetheless credits two top Iowa officials, Mitch Stewart and Anne Filipic, as well as nine regional directors, for much of the success in Iowa.)

All 13 precinct captains in Ankeny were locals, including three Republican converts; the local field organizer was a Des Moines native. When such homegrown talent wasn't available, the campaign integrated organizers into communities as organically as it could. "You can't parachute people in and expect them to make a difference," Axelrod told me. "What we did is we brought hundreds of organizers to the state in the spring. And they really developed a relationship." One such organizer was the son of former Clinton FCC chairman Reed Hundt, who became such a beloved figure in Algona, another Des Moines suburb, that local Democrats asked him to stick around and run for City Council.

The Obama people gave their local organizers incredible authority—the organizers decided who would introduce Obama at events, who would attend meetings with him—but they frowned on anything that might introduce a wedge between online and offline supporters. This spring, for example, the campaign stared down a 29-year-old paralegal named Joe Anthony, who had set up a popular Obama page on MySpace. The page had attracted tens of thousands of people. But the campaign worried about leaving such a high-profile site in the hands of an amateur who could make p.r. mistakes. After some failed attempts at coordination, it convinced MySpace to block Anthony's access to his own page. This prompted howls of protest from the blogosphere but was unquestionably the right decision.

In the end, the local approach helped the campaign predict its Iowa outcome with remarkable precision. Campaigns typically divide voters into five categories--with voters who will almost certainly support them labeled "ones" and people who will vote for their opponents labeled "fives." The campaign uses these numbers to arrive at a "win goal," which, if it knows its supporters, should roughly correspond to actual votes. According to the Obama campaign, its win goal was 91,000—almost exactly the number of people who caucused for the candidate.

When all was said and done, Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins had probably recruited hundreds of Dean supporters without scaring up a single Iowa vote. By contrast, Jordan Voss recruited only five—himself, his parents, and the Meffords. But they all came through when it mattered.

WHICH BRINGS US to New Hampshire—and the one Dean lesson the Obama campaign couldn't avoid learning all over again: Regardless of how many people you get to the polls, sometimes they just don't vote for you. To this day, Trippi insists he had 37,000 committed "ones" in Iowa, even though Dean only got some 22,000 votes. "They came. They voted," he told me. "We found out that ... they're just as susceptible as anyone else to saying, 'Whoa, I'm going to go vote for John Kerry or John Edwards.'" 

One reason for the Obama campaign's confidence heading into New Hampshire was that, as in Iowa, it had the largest organization of any candidate, assembled months in advance. A day out from the primary, both leading campaigns' internal polls showed voters supporting Obama by a significant margin. But, on primary day, some of the people Obama brought to the polls—particularly women—drifted to Hillary, perhaps because they resented the way her rivals and the press had treated her.

The silver lining for Obama is that, unlike for Dean, the causes of his election-day attrition are unlikely to be repeated, while his organizational advantages remain. In South Carolina, he has what Don Fowler, the unofficial dean of the state's Democrats, has called "the most methodical canvassing project I have ever seen." Fowler said this back in September. Obama also has the largest field operation in Nevada—which will hold a caucus in just over a week—with precinct captains in 90 percent of the state's nearly 2,000 precincts. Even in most of the 22 states that vote on February 5—the kind of massive, nationwide vote that would normally defy grassroots efforts—team Obama has organized meticulously, optimistic that its Iowa formula is reproducible. Expect to see a lot of those pledge cards coming soon to an event near you.

This article appeared in the January 30, 2008 issue of the magazine.