Shirky argues in ‘Exiting Deanspace’ that the Howard Dean campaign during the primaries of 2003 was a “mirage” – it did what successful campaigns do but fell short because it failed to get actual votes. While his digital strategies set new standards for interactive politics, his loss was the result of unprecedented oversights and false assumptions.
One of the biggest failures that Shirky points out is the fact that his rise in popularity occurred long before people were set to vote in January. The year before, he was reported as being the “inevitable” winner because of the fact that he was gathering what appeared to be a surprisingly large surge in support and funding. As we’ve already seen from our earlier readings by Rheingold and Shirky, the Internet offers a nuanced outlet for people to organize themselves around specific interests or causes, following the “smart mobs” model. Howard Dean was able to capitalize on this effect, using sites like MeetUp and Get Local to find potential followers and provide them with opportunities to collectively gather and show their support. He took advantage of the ability to quickly mobilize hundreds of people who had an interest in hearing him speak, which during that time was not something most candidates were able to do. Additionally, he raised millions of dollars through online fundraising simply by receiving large numbers of small contributions. Nobody had ever used the Internet in this way before, so it appeared to be a recognition of his abilities and a sign that he was to be a huge success. In reality, he simply made what were once difficult tasks very easy. The Internet allows for more accessible and convenient political engagement, but it does not commit anyone to voting in a certain way in the primaries. In all of his efforts, Dean really only succeeded in creating a movement versus an actual campaign.
Something that Hindman also points out in ‘Real Lessons of Howard Dean’ was the fact that Internet users at the time were primarily democrats. Moderates and conservatives were far less inclined to be active online, which is a potential reason why his early success offered a skewed perception. In addition, many people who were caught up in his rising popularity only were interested in the fact that he was using the Internet as a political tool and never intended on voting for him in the first place. While Howard Dean’s campaign had a sense of novelty that was attractive and caught people’s attention, he himself was not a strong enough candidate to substantially win people over at the polls.
In what ways have campaigns progressed since Dean introduced these new strategies for online political involvement? Have any politicians been truly successful in using the Internet to help their campaign, and if so, what did they do differently than Dean? Do you see any new technological opportunities left for candidates to take advantage of in the future?