His fellow Americans

Howard Dean has mobilised the apathetic, the disaffected and the downright angry to forge a grassroots coalition that has the Bush administration worried - and in the process, he's torn up the rule book of modern political campaigning. Andrew Gumbel reports
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The Independent US

A few months ago, Kimmy Cash was just another disaffected 28-year-old California punk with a pierced nose looking for a cause to believe in. Then she stumbled on Howard Dean, the man who would be George W Bush's Democratic challenger in next November's presidential election, and her life changed in dramatic and unexpected ways.

She didn't just become a convert, converts being part and parcel of any half-decent campaign for high political office. She didn't just become a volunteer, because the word volunteer suggests someone who licks envelopes or makes phone calls at the candidate's behest. Rather, she has turned into the queen of her own pet enterprise, which is to politicise America's two million punks and get them interested in electoral politics for the first time in their lives.

Another presidential campaign might have insisted that she subject her ideas to committee approval. Another campaign might have got nervous about having a punk fan club at all. But the Dean people, with their radical new approach to grassroots organizing, told her to go right ahead, no questions asked, and the results have been little short of extraordinary.

Her website, www.punxfor dean.org, is receiving thousands of hits each day. In less than three months, she has signed up a staggering 13,000 volunteers to hand out literature at punk clubs and concert venues across all 50 states. She is organizing a nationwide series of concerts, the first rule of which is that every attendee must be registered to vote. (The registration forms will be on hand at the door.) Next month, her site is putting out a CD of underground punk bands named after the Dean slogan "Taking Back America". By now, interest has grown so high from other youth groups that Cash is thinking of starting up new websites catering to hip-hoppers for Dean and skaters for Dean.

"Nobody's ever tapped into this demographic, and it kicks ass," she says on the phone from Arizona, where she is setting up new chapters of her organization. The way she sees it, she's helping to effect a seismic shift in the way American politics operates by energising the half of the electorate that never usually votes. As she writes on her website: "We have preached 'fuck the system' long enough. Now, it's time to change it." Given that the margin between Al Gore and George Bush in several states in 2000 came down to just a few hundred votes - in Oregon, New Mexico, New Hampshire as well as Florida - the punk factor could turn out to be no trivial matter. "We are more powerful than people might like to think," she says.

Cash's personal devotion to the cause is impressive. She doesn't have a whole lot of money - she makes a living buying and selling vintage merchandise on eBay, the online auction site - but with her boyfriend and two children, aged seven and three, in tow she has thrown herself into the campaign as though she were running for office herself. She even has tattoos on both her forearms reading "Dean - Truth - Hope" which she had done on the candidate's birthday (17 November) and which, she says, will serve as mementos of "a really cool period in my life" even if her man doesn't ultimately make it to the White House.

She is far from the only true believer in what - bizarrely, since this is the secular left-hand side of the American political spectrum, not the fundamentalist Christian right - has become a near-messianic cause. Across the country, volunteers of all ages and interest groups have taken up the banner for the former Vermont governor, devising their own strategies and forming their own sub-groups, pulling in friends, exasperating family members and gleefully neglecting their day-jobs. More than 500,000 volunteers have signed up online, most of them with no prior experience of politics. By now there are websites devoted not only to punks for Dean, but also veterans for Dean, Asian Americans for Dean, cyclists and environmentalists for Dean, dykes for Dean, Deadheads and Mormons for Dean, even Republicans for Dean.

What binds them is a campaign unlike any other ever waged, one that is likely to be studied and emulated far and wide, whether or not the doctor from Vermont succeeds in becoming president. Much has been written about the Dean campaign's use of the internet, but in reality the internet is only part of the story. All the candidates for president are using the internet, and so are their campaign staffs, supporters and volunteers. The internet, on its own, could never have achieved the transformation that turned Dean from fringe candidate ("Howard who?") to seemingly unstoppable front-runner, from obscure governor of a politically insignificant north-eastern state to standard-bearer of a movement that promises to shake the Democratic Party out of its moribund torpor and set US politics alight in a way unseen since the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War.

The Dean phenomenon has relied, rather, on a felicitous combination of the man, his message, and an audacious use of digital media that has let the campaign lead him as much as he has led the campaign. Usually, people aspiring to become president decide first that they are going to run, and settle only afterwards on a campaign platform. In other words, it is a top-down operation, staffed by professional political operatives and funded by special-interest lobbyists hoping to incorporate their own agenda into the candidate's. Dean has turned that logic on its head, putting himself at the service of the agenda, not the other way around. He started out identifying his constituency and then staked his claim to high public office by articulating its concerns and aspirations in ways not reflected either in Washington or in the mainstream news media. He assembled all the broken shards of discontent that people were feeling about a seemingly popular President and fashioned them back into a coherent whole. Because he believed in what he was saying and was not acting as a front for other interests, the sincerity of his delivery leapt out at people and accounts for much of his appeal.

What he picked up on was people's helpless sense of anger: anger about the overweening power of corporations; anger about job losses and overseas factory relocations; anger about the loosening of environmental regulations; anger about the looting of company pension funds; anger about tax cuts that seemed to benefit only the rich; anger about the White House's failure to bail out cash-strapped states and prevent cuts in hospitals and other basic services; anger about the hit-and-miss approach to public safety in the wake of September 11; anger about the way the Bush administration has wrapped itself in the mantle of patriotism and exploited the fear of ordinary Americans to justify an assault on civil liberties; and, perhaps most importantly, anger at the lies and phoney intelligence used to justify the war on Iraq.

The internet was the obvious place to bring together all of these elements. First, because that was where they were already being discussed, in the absence of adequate coverage in the mainstream media. And, secondly, because that was where several precursors to the Dean candidacy had taken up residence to organize and develop their own overlapping sense of community - everyone from the anti-globalisation movement to the anti-war protesters who flooded on to the streets of American cities in their hundreds of thousands in January and February this year.

Dean plugged into much the same constituency claimed by Ralph Nader when he ran for president on the Green Party ticket four years ago and made just enough of an impact to deny Al Gore the keys to the White House. Unlike Nader, though, Dean has run as a mainstream candidate and addressed a mass audience, not just the 10 per cent or so of the country with an inclination to break out of the two-party system altogether. Dean has portrayed himself as a centrist, which he is, albeit an angry centrist determined to reform a system and a Democratic Party he believes have badly lost their way.

His premise from the beginning was to be open to everyone and to give his followers the leeway to do as much legwork as he did. As his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, explained in a recent interview, it is much the same principle as the "pebble theory" that Gary Hart adopted in 1984 when he came close to snatching the Democratic Party nomination from Walter Mondale. You run into a town in Iowa and convince just one person: "That's your pebble. Drop your pebble in the water. And leave. Let that energy ripple out to other folks in town."

While the other candidates crunched numbers to try to identify their "core demographic" or organized ritzy fundraising dinners out of sight, and beyond the price-range, of ordinary voters, Dean barnstormed the country visiting coffee bars, transvestite clubs, private homes, schools, town hall meetings - anywhere that would have him. He turned nobody away and was receptive to everything. Kimmy Cash ran into him at a volunteer-organized fundraiser at Los Angeles' Union Station at the end of September, sneaking into a $500-a-ticket area even though she had paid only $100. Rather than sneering at her appearance or having her thrown out, Dean complimented her tattoos and stood patiently while she took a picture of him. Cash was so impressed that she ran home that night and bought the domain name for her website. "He told me I was a great supporter," she says. "He was so cool, so receptive."

He prompted similar reactions across the board. Susanne Savage, a former music industry executive from Los Angeles who decided very early on that she wanted to help kick George Bush out of the White House, wrote letters to the campaign staff of three Democratic candidates - Dean, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards - to ask what she could do. Kerry invited her to pay $2,000 to attend a Hollywood fundraiser, which she didn't fancy and couldn't afford. Edwards never got back to her at all. The Dean camp, by contrast, gave her a list of upcoming informal house parties in her area where attendees could contribute whatever they wanted and talk to the candidate on a speaker-phone conference call. "Right then, it was obvious to me he was different from the rest of the pack," she says.

Savage was soon co-ordinating a loose coalition of supporters called "LA for Dean" out of her living-room. What they did to broaden their circle was left entirely to them. They set up tables at neighbourhood farmers' markets, organized "meet-ups" to discuss Dean and the other candidates at karaoke bars, and started compiling detailed precinct maps to divide individual households into "yes", "maybe" and "no" categories. After a few months, a co-ordinator flew out from campaign headquarters in Burlington, Vermont, to help them with their efforts. The group asked the co-ordinator, Aaron Holmes, what the campaign thought of this or that strategy, or how the campaign intended to broach such-and-such an organizing issue. "You don't understand," Holmes said, "you are the campaign."

Mike Meurer, another LA volunteer, was open-mouthed with amazement. "I've been active on political campaigns for years," he says, "and this was the most stunning statement I've ever heard uttered by any of them." But Holmes meant it, and soon the LA group found it wielded real influence. During one conference call, Joe Trippi expressed frustration at his inability to find a snappy slogan to communicate a thought he had had about fundraising. To compete with President Bush's anticipated $200m campaign war chest, he said, would require two million Dean supporters to contribute $100 each. How to communicate this concept? Meurer, who runs his own marketing company, suggested calling it "the $100 revolution". His slogan was instantly adopted.

Meurer also helped think up and organize a recent canvassing effort across * * state lines called the Southwest Voter Express, and is now working on a fundraising mass bike ride which would converge on the Democratic National Convention in Boston next July. Others in the group have established a chapter of the so-called Dean Corps, a community-based volunteer group that does not openly campaign but rather gets involved in projects such as helping to build low-income housing units in blighted neighbourhoods - the rather lofty idea being that the Dean campaign is about much more than simply running for office.

The role of the internet in all this is less to recruit people than it is to give them a sense of empowerment, immediate contact with one another and common purpose. One day, the word will go out to raise money for a Democratic congressional candidate in trouble, and in 48 hours volunteers will come up with $68,000. Another day, the request might be for handwritten letters to Iowa caucus members. Each of these requests mobilises supporters while also acting as an organizing tool at the local level. And that, in a nutshell, is the genius of the campaign.

"The Dean campaign is the only one saying something other than, 'give us your money and, by the way, look how great our candidate is'," says Sandy Cate, a San Francisco anthropologist. "They may be using a new technology which brings the campaign directly into people's homes, but really this is classic, old-style social organizing. Everyone has something to do, and every organizing tactic has a multiple purpose. They want people to be involved in the decision-making of the campaign, to take part in more than a passive way."

In some respects, the Dean campaign is catching on to something the Republicans have already understood: that to win national elections, it is a mistake to focus your energies on courting the swing voters in the middle, who don't pay much attention and can't be trusted to base their ultimate decision on anything more substantial than a candidate's smile or haircut. Rather, the important thing is to energise your base, give them something to be passionate about and get them to go out and mobilise the undecideds. The 2000 Bush campaign achieved this through churches and other community groups; Dean's church is the internet. He has even borrowed some of the language of the right. His slogan "Take Back America" is exactly the rallying cry used by the Republicans when they dramatically retook control of the House of Representatives in 1994.

In other respects, though, what Dean is doing is an entirely new departure because of his relinquishing of central control. The candidate's actual policy platform is fixed, but everything else is essentially up for grabs, as Mike Meurer observes: "Other campaigns are fanatical about controlling the messenger and the message. They want a command and control structure in dealing with the volunteers."

That is certainly true of Bush, and it was also true of Al Gore four years ago. Shortly before the 2000 election, Susanne Savage wrote to the Gore campaign and suggested a few youth outreach initiatives based on her company's success in promoting a Puff Daddy album. She asked the Gore campaign for $6,000 to finance a week-long get-out-the-vote effort that sounded much like an embryonic version of what Dean is now doing. "Mustn't Al Gore have a presence on the websites the youth of America frequent each and every day?" she asked in her letter. "Mustn't we utilise the power of street teams to market the next president of the United States to young people all across America?" The Gore campaign's telling reply was to say these all sounded like terrific ideas but could not be used "because we can't control the message".

It was, admittedly, much easier for Howard Dean to relinquish control, at least at the start, because he was a rank outsider with nothing to lose. It remains to be seen how decentralised his campaign will stay if he is confirmed as the Democratic nominee - there are signs already that certain decisions are being referred back to headquarters in Vermont. But the principle has proved seductive enough to win over Al Gore, who endorsed Dean earlier this month. Dean himself likes to say in his stump speech that the populist firestorm he has unleashed is the only way to go head-to-head with a dizzyingly well-funded Republican machine. Joe Trippi, who used to work in the computer industry, likens it to the Linux open-source operating software code, which is written by its users; to return to central control at this stage would make as much sense as Linux fans switching back to Microsoft Windows.

The big unanswered question, of course, is whether the Dean campaign has the momentum to win next November. In calmer times one might have rated his chances more confidently. After all, he can draw on the same party base as Al Gore, who excited nobody but still won the popular vote in 2000, and at the same time he is recruiting hundreds of thousands of new voters. But these are not calm times, and it is far from clear whether Dean can counter the bellicose, us-versus-them rhetoric emanating from both the Bush administration and the more conservative, corporate-financed wing of the Democratic Party.

His supporters, for their part, are buoyed by a sense of hope they have not felt in years. Dean finishes every stump speech by telling them the biggest lie that any politician can tell is that he will fix all their problems. "You have the power to change this country, not me," he tells them. "You have the power!"

Whether they are a select group of political operatives sitting in a hotel dining-room, or a raucous crowd at a rock venue, they lap up the line, all the while fervently hoping it is the truth.