Meet-Up at the White House? All of a Sudden, the Anti-War Howard Dean Looks a Serious Candidate for US President
Miliband, Edward, New Statesman (1996)
Flashmobs are the fad of the summer. Groups of young people, prompted by the internet, gather at a particular time and place to perform some mundane and meaningless action. For months, the Democratic presidential campaign of the former Vermont governor Howard Dean has been dismissed as a political flashmob: a passing fad soon to be forgotten.
After all, went the conventional wisdom, Vermont is one of the smallest states in the US, so his political experience will carry no clout. In any case, ran the argument, this guy--an opponent of war in Iraq, the first governor to sign legislation for gay civil unions, a proponent of universal healthcare--is far too liberal to win the nomination, never mind the presidency. And rather like the flashmob, Dean has built support through a website, www.meetup.com, which up to now has been used by people with hobbies, such as breeding chihuahuas or performing yoga, who want to meet like-minded people. "It's like watching my 13-year-old daughter instant-messaging," sneered the campaign manager for a rival candidate. "It's not particularly about politics and policy. It's almost like a reality show."
Dean meet-ups have indeed become a campaign phenomenon. On the first Wednesday in August, 481 events took place on the same day in every US state, with nearly 80,000 people attending (the next most popular meet-up Democrat, John Kerry, has 8,000 members). At one of three separate meet-ups in the Boston area, Maggie, a doctor at a local hospital, confirmed that Dean's innovative use of the internet is part of his appeal.
"I am here as much because of the campaign as the candidate," she said, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the bar where the meet-up was held.
Brief rallying speeches by local state representatives and a rather wooden video message from Dean were followed by the main business of the evening: the assembled supporters, about 100 of them, mostly young, writing personal letters to New Hampshire voters about why they should support Dean.
The extent of Dean's grass-roots network is unprecedented for this stage of a Democratic primary campaign, still five months before the first real vote is cast in Iowa. His supporters enabled him to raise more money ($7.5m) from more people (59,000) than any other Democratic candidate in the second quarter of the year, with much of it coming from small, web-based donations.
Moreover, there are reasons to believe that Dean's appeal can extend beyond his current support base to a wider Democratic audience. First, he sounds angry--angry at the war on Iraq, angry about George Bush's tax cuts. This resonates with Democratic voters, who still resent the contested 2000 election result. Second, he is an outsider in Washington, anything but slick, with a slightly herky-jerky speaking style. …