The Contenders: How Howard Dean Reinvented Presidential Campaigns

The Contenders: How Howard Dean Reinvented Presidential Campaigns

Why you should care

Howard Dean showed that grassroots insurgent can upend the establishment. It could happen again.

Learn more about Howard Dean’s insurgent campaign by watching The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a new TV series from OZY about the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on Earth. It airs every Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST this fall on PBS.

All most people remember these days from Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid is the Dean Scream — that odd, strangled “yeeeearrghhh” at a rally after a disappointing finish in Iowa’s presidential caucus. Cable news grabbed the clip and quickly spun it out of control. His campaign never recovered.

Yet, as OZY explores in an upcoming episode of The Contenders: 16 for ’16, airing every Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST on PBS, Dean left a lasting impact on the art of the campaign. He and his team reinvented grassroots insurgent campaigning for the modern era, sparking a wave of energy and enthusiasm from young voters and progressives unseen in a generation. Barack Obama’s anti-establishment 2008 campaign in many ways followed in — and built on — Dean’s footsteps, with new tools like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube the Dean campaign could only dream of.

“Our campaign was, in some ways, the Gene McCarthy campaign of the ’60s,” Dean reflected in 2014 at Netroots Nation, an annual conference for political progressives. “It was the first expression of a whole new generation, which I call ‘first globals,’ not millennials, and that’s what, really, the campaign was all about. I do think we revolutionized politics,” he continued, by giving young people the freedom to invent new approaches.

That included a corps of rookie campaign staffers — “tons and tons of 23-year-olds,” Dean said with a laugh — savvy to the burgeoning power of the Internet, who used new platforms like Meetup and blogging to mobilize the grassroots. “In those days, everybody over 30 was completely incompetent when it had anything to do with the internet,” Dean recalled. “These guys were inventing this stuff on the fly.”

Throughout the spring and summer of 2003, the campaign built momentum, house party by house party, largely under the radar. Dean sold himself as the straight-talking small-town doctor, the antidote to Washington’s slick, conniving ways. His campaign also pioneered the concept of raising big money online through small-dollar donations, something the Obama campaign took to a new level four years later.

That unexpected success made stars of staffers like campaign manager Joe Trippi and webmaster Nicco Mele, now considered sages of online campaigning, with books and consulting firms to their names. And it slingshot the dark-horse Democrat past his competitors to the top of the crowded primary pack by the beginning of 2004. Suddenly everyone was abuzz about Dean.

“Politics is a substitute for war. You’re not going to meet the garden club when you’re running for president of the United States.”

Howard Dean in The Contenders

The campaign’s distant third-place finish in Iowa was a shock. He went on to lose more than a dozen contests before bowing out in mid-February.

What happened? The empire struck back, hard. “Politics is a substitute for war,” as Dean tells OZY in The Contenders. “You’re not going to meet the garden club when you’re running for president of the United States.”

As the outsider, Dean generated heartburn among the Washington establishment. Staffers from rival Democratic campaigns strategized over ways to halt his momentum, successfully. A longtime insider, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, ended up winning the 2004 Democratic nomination, but then lost to George W. Bush.

Of course, by the standards of this year’s raucous U.S. presidential election, including the far more outspoken — and successful — “outsider” candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Dean’s own outbursts seem rather mild-mannered, and his scream downright tame. And if Dean and his candidacy should be remembered for anything, then it should be the loudness with which his innovation still echoes and not just the volume of his brief roar.

This story was updated by Sean Braswell.

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