On a rare summery afternoon in Manhattan, several hundred people crowded into a dark union hall to cheer a television broadcast. Live from Burlington, Vt., the state’s former governor, Howard Dean, was making a formal announcement of his Presidential candidacy. The largely youthful crowd yelled, chanted and applauded as if their candidate were addressing them in person. The scene was replicated at scores of mini-rallies across the country on June 23, demonstrating the enthusiasm and sheer volume of Mr. Dean’s supporters.
This notable event was a sharp contrast to the day before, when Mr. Dean appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press . He flopped badly, reversing himself, getting into semantic arguments with host Tim Russert and showing a limited grasp of key issues. Democratic donors, Beltway operatives and the national media watched closely, intent on looking for a breakout performance from somebody in the crowded Democratic field. Mr. Dean, however, didn’t provide it.
The events of recent days illustrate the central strength and weakness of the Dean campaign. On the one hand, he has done more than any other candidate to inspire large numbers of ordinary Democrats to turn out as volunteers and contributors. On the other, there is a widespread dismissiveness in the way he is perceived within the elite circles of Democratic politics.
The real challenge for the Dean campaign will be to use his strength within the grassroots to overcome his weakness within the party establishment.
“Dean’s done a great job of generating attention for himself and distinguishing himself from the pack, but that’s not enough,” said Robert Zimmerman, a major D.N.C. fund-raiser who is not affiliated with any of the primary campaigns. “You win by proving you’re a candidate of substance and by lining up support within the party. I’m not sure Dean’s done that.”
Luckily for Mr. Dean, though, his backers don’t really care about such considerations. The sorts of people who have been showing up to Dean rallies over the last few months have assigned themselves the role of the angry outsiders. They regard as a positive attribute Mr. Dean’s unpopularity with much of the Democratic establishment, which they see as cowed and accommodationist in the face of a popular and well-funded Republican in the White House. They feel that Mr. Russert and the rest of the “mainstream media” are biased against Mr. Dean’s candidacy. (There was audible hissing in the room when, during his announcement speech, Mr. Dean asked: “Who can we trust? Is the media reporting the truth?”) And they’re unlikely to be scared off if their candidate lags behind in fund-raising in a given quarter.
“A lot of these people have never been involved in politics before,” said David Nir, who quit his job as a hedge-fund associate to take an unpaid position as Mr. Dean’s director of volunteers for New York. “They just became very attracted to Howard Dean and what he represents, and I think when your interest in a candidate is of that nature, you tend to be less worried about those traditional measures.”
An aide to another candidate conceded that because of the nature of his support, Mr. Dean’s missteps were unlikely to erode his backing. “The exposure probably helps him,” said the aide. “These people drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago.”
Won’t Be Silent!
To judge by the turnout for Mr. Dean’s announcement, the devotion of his fans shows little sign of flagging. In the union hall, the louder Mr. Dean got in his speech, the more excited they all got. Mr. Dean provoked a particularly noisy response when he referred angrily to a fund-raiser being held that evening at the Sheraton New York for George W. Bush: “When the President announces $4 million more tonight to maintain his agenda, we will not be silent!”
The Dean campaign hopes to capitalize on all of this energy in the coming days with a series of high-profile demonstrations of its strength in numbers. On June 28, the campaign plans to send two busloads of 50 volunteers each to New Hampshire to participate in what New York campaign manager Ethan Geto called “saturation canvassing” in Manchester. There are about 70 volunteers signed up on the Dean Web site to circulate and hand out literature at the Gay Pride Parade in Manhattan on June 29.
And on June 30, when most candidates will be locked in an office, dialing a list of donors ahead of the campaign-finance filing deadline that night, Mr. Dean will be going to the Roxy, a gay disco on West 18th Street, for a $25-a-head event that the campaign hopes will draw a crowd of well over 1,000.
“I would say this kind of support is of paramount importance for us,” said Mr. Nir. “A candidate can reach prominence by raising a ton of money in a quarter. Or he can do it by mobilizing tons of volunteers. I think Dean has become a first-tier candidate by doing the latter.”
But while the campaign continues to generate excitement among certain segments of the electorate, supporters must be aware that excitement alone does not win nominations. Insurgent candidacies tend to attract loads of attention early on, only to fade later as campaign organization, funds on hand and a candidate’s ability to avoid mistakes become more decisive factors. There are signs right now that Mr. Dean’s initial momentum may be slowing: after surging to a statistical tie in the polls in New Hampshire with front-runner Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, he now appears to have fallen back again.
The Dean campaign is hoping to avoid the traditional pitfalls of an insurgent campaign by taking advantage of its glut of volunteers in novel ways. Other than packing them into events or shipping them off to ring doorbells, the campaign is also mobilizing them to organize and raise money from friends and associates, with an emphasis on the Internet.
For example, the Dean campaign has found a bonanza in the Web site MeetUp.com, an online meeting place for local interest groups which has now registered about 35,000 Dean supporters for social and campaign events.
Mr. Dean also stands to receive a huge boost, for example, if his campaign can win the backing of MoveOn.org, a sensationally successful political-action committee that has the capacity to raise millions of dollars for the next Presidential election. The group, originally set up to organize opposition to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, has drawn support in recent months from opponents of the war in Iraq. MoveOn.org is currently holding an online election for its contributors to determine the group’s endorsement, with Mr. Dean, on the strength of his anti-war stance, a strong favorite to win it.
Mr. Dean, in his speech, praised MoveOn.org for its work to “strengthen the voice of the people.” He also said that his was “the great grassroots campaign of the modern era, built on mouse pads, shoe leather and hope.”
The question, though, is whether Howard Dean’s campaign can sustain it’s momentum. “Dean’s definitely got the attention,” said Mr. Zimmerman. “Now we’ll see what he can do with it.