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Dean's Blog Builds Support Despite a Lack of Personal Input

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The former Vermont governor has a slick and informative Weblog, but if you hope to glean some insight about the man, you might be better off shaking hands with him in person.

Anyone who has visited a magazine newsrack in America this week knows the mug of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. The centrist-turned-populist candidate for U.S. president had pulled off the triple threat in campaign PR: Dean is featured on the cover of Time, Newsweek and above the banner on U.S. News this week. If you wanted to read every recent media piece on Dean, you might as well put away anything left on your summer reading list. A Google News search for "Howard Dean" brings up an eye-popping 4,340 stories.

Let me save you some time. A recurrent theme is that Dean's staff has unleashed the power of the Internet, raising millions of dollars through online drives, organizing real-world meetings of thousands of supporters through MeetUp.com, and keeping everyone updated through the "official blog." But wait, there's more. There's a photo gallery, a video repository called Dean TV, and even a wireless news update service. Not too shabby for a guy who admitted to CNN that "I kind of missed the Internet boom."

While the candidate himself is a technical neophyte, the people around him are not. His campaign manager, Joe Trippi, has ties to Silicon Valley and is often up in the wee hours surfing the Net. When Dean was gaining attention in the blogosphere by guest-blogging for intellectual property guru Lawrence Lessig, Trippi even waded into the nerd jungle of Slashdot to defend Dean. Some people questioned whether Dean would actually write his posts, to which Trippi responded, "We have absolutely forbidden any staff from posting or writing anything for Howard Dean and then post it under his name."

As for using the Net and any other tools, Trippi wrote in big capital letters: "IT'S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY." The campaign's idea of using the Net as a grassroots tool has worked swimmingly so far, with about $7 million raised in the second quarter -- two-thirds coming via the Net. But in the grab for money, has the campaign's Weblog missed an opportunity to showcase the personality of its candidate?

So far, yes. Instead the Weblog has focused on the writing of the Dean Internet team, Mathew Gross, Zephyr Teachout, Kate O'Connor and others. In fact, many of the Dean bloggers have built followings in the blogosphere. But if you click on the archive of Dean's posts to the blog, you'll find that most of them are cursory "thank yous" to supporters, with little insight into the candidate's state of mind. His posts on Lessig's blog were actually more illuminating than anything on his own blog.

Inside the Dean blog

It's ironic that an outsider candidate who comes off as down to earth and a man of the people wouldn't utilize the Web journal format as a way to connect to people in a personal way. Perhaps he could take a lesson from U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who set up a summer blog to tell stories of his road trips across South Dakota. It's missing interactivity, but it does give us the voice of the senator. And it wouldn't hurt Dean to check out Tom Watson, a Labor Party member of the British Parliament, who has been blogging in a very direct manner since last March -- and sometimes posts multiple times per day.

But Dean has had to weigh his time considerations carefully, and his media appearances and travel have put a huge dent in his schedule. Instead, his blog has become a cross between a focus group and cheering section, with supporters sending ideas via the vast array of comments. Gross, a writer who lived in Moab, Utah, joined the campaign in February. He was hired as chief blogger after writing a memo to Trippi explaining the importance of blogs -- a subject that had been on Trippi's front burner.

Gross told me that he goes live with just about all his posts, as do his colleagues. The lack of oversight is typical in a campaign that has let dozens of unofficial blogs bloom, including a "Dean Defense Forces" group that quickly mobilizes counterattacks to any media story that criticizes Dean. That means Astroturf-style letter campaigns to news outlets or e-mails to journalists.

"This campaign is about empowering people to do what they want," Gross said. "We've learned to really let go of the top-down control model of past campaigns. You just have to trust that the American people will do what's best. And for the most part, they have."

Still, letting the inmates run the asylum has had its downside. One tech newbie, former Rep. Glen Maxey (D-Tex.), who is Dean's campaign coordinator in Texas, unleashed e-mail spam to people who hadn't signed up to get reports from the campaign. After learning of the unsolicited e-mails, folks at Dean's headquarters explained to Maxey why it was wrong. "From now on, only people who personally sign up for our e-mail lists, contribute money, volunteer or sign a petition will receive e-mails from Dean for Texas," Maxey wrote in an online mea culpa.

Bloggers and journalists weigh in

Journalists researching the Dean campaign can find a cornucopia of updated numbers, facts and media links from the Dean blog. So for that, it's certainly useful. But it's rarely quote-worthy. Samara Aberman, a reporter for PBS' "The News Hour With Jim Lehrer," found the blog helpful when following Dean's fund-raising efforts while doing a story on the candidates' use of the Net. "I can see how someone might feel more plugged in to his campaign if they keep up with it," she e-mailed me. "It's all messages from his staff. So it's a neat feature, but whenever I needed a hard fact on something, I would just call the campaign, rather than wade through hard-to-search archives for the answer."

Aberman was less impressed with Dean's personal involvement in blogging. "[Dean's] Lessig guest blogging I felt was a good idea but hardly brought major insight into his thoughts," she said. "He mentioned he does read what people post and posts some things himself (a bite that I ended up including), but if you go to his actual blog, there aren't that many Dean entries to see or hear."

Of course, no one really knows what to expect from candidate blogs because there have been so few in the past, if any. Jeff Jarvis, president of Advance.net and a popular blogger, said the format is only now taking shape. "I'm not sure what I expect from a candidate's Weblog," he e-mailed me. "I know what I don't want: not just canned statements, not just candidate schedules, not just well-formed statements from aides. I hope to read the voice of the candidate; I hope to see the candidate react to the news and give me a window into how he or she thinks; I hope to believe that through this Weblog -- as through most Weblogs -- I'm developing a relationship with the person, I'm getting to know the writer."

But before the Dean Defense Forces bring on the metaphorical fighter jets to my inbox, let's hear what the Deanies say in his defense. Blogger Rick Klau shrugs off the lack of posts from Dean himself. "I think the way the campaign has used the blog has accomplished something equally effective: pulling his many supporters into the campaign, making them feel a part of the process," he said via e-mail. "I look at it in much the same way I look at a company; I don't particularly care about whether the CEO has a blog. The CEO typically has plenty of avenues to have a voice; it's the people who are doing the work underneath the CEO whose voices I want to hear."

The Kos connection

Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, who pens The Daily Kos blog, echoed Klau's defense. "People can see the candidate on TV, or read about him in the paper," Moulitsas e-mailed me. "But nothing binds people more to the campaign than to feel as though they're part of the team, that their concerns and ideas are being considered. And getting to know those team members intimately help the process. Never before has the public had such insight into the behind the scenes of a campaign. Never before have top campaign staffers become celebrities in their own rights."

Moulitsas has played a key role in helping the Dean campaign informally in the past, urging them to use Weblogs and the MeetUp.com service. In fact, Moulitsas teamed up with blogger Jerome Armstrong (of MyDD.com) to start a consulting service, with Dean and a couple of U.S. Senate candidates as clients. His idea of "Netroots" campaigns might bring in an avalanche of clients and competitors after Dean's success.

One thing Moulitsas does understand is the power of blogging: "The important thing in blogging is not to have people show up, it's getting them to return," he said. "Because the more they return, the more intimate they become with the campaign. And the more intimate they become, the more likely they are to volunteer and/or donate money. And once they invest their time or money, they have a vested interest in the campaign's success and will do everything in their power to see their investment pay off.

"That's why it doesn't matter that Dean seldom blogs. Would it help if he did? Probably. It wouldn't hurt. But I think most people realize that a presidential campaign is grueling business, and his time would be better spent actually meeting with voters or raising money."

So, at this point, we can chalk up Dean's blog as the ultimate marketing and community tool for his supporters. But as for insight into the candidate himself, you'll have to go shake hands with him in person.

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Related Links
An Apology From Rep. Glen Maxey
Daily Kos
Dean Defense Forces
Dean's Blog for America
Dean's Wireless Update Service
Howard's Posts on Blog for America
MyDD: Due Diligence
Rick Klau's Weblog
Slashdot: Why? Why the Hell Not?
The News Hour With Jim Lehrer
Tom Watson's Blog
Travels With Tom (Daschle)
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