Campaigning for election is an exercise in personal endurance. To build voters’ trust, political candidates must brave constant lobbying, fierce debates, and months on the trail, all while projecting an aura of leadership. And in an age where a candidate’s every move is broadcast and digitally immortalized, winning the favor of the masses certainly hasn’t gotten easier.
If left unchecked, too much raw enthusiasm can overtake even the strongest grassroots campaign; Howard Dean, frontrunner for Democratic presidential candidacy in 2004, learned this lesson the hard way. Dean’s movement had all the ingredients of a successful campaign, including a legion of cyber volunteers and online donors to spread his message and a favorable polling rate to bolster voter confidence.
Dean’s momentum would see him sail past John Kerry and clinch the presidential nomination, or so it was predicted. Unfortunately, the online buzz failed to impress Iowa’s voters. He placed a disappointing third in the state’s critical primary, much to his supporters’ shock.
What followed cost Dean not just the nomination, but his career. During a rebound speech at the Iowa Caucus, Dean whipped his supporters into a frenzy, and among the cheers, proceeded to end his soliloquy with an attempt at a victory shout. To the millions listening, however, it sounded more like one of the strangest sounds ever broadcast on live television. Dubbed “the Dean Scream,” it—along with Dean’s prospects of victory—quickly became a running joke on internet forums and talk shows.
It was the grassroots power of the internet that built Howard Dean, and in the end, the internet overwhelmed him. The efficiency with which his staff was first able to dominate digital resources was refined and redeployed in the campaigns of his successors. His mistake, however, was failing to nail down his supporters’ passion, to establish accurate metrics, and a foothold solid enough to weather a viral media backlash.
Dean might’ve survived the Iowa primary—he might’ve even soldiered on past the scream—had he harnessed the internet’s nascent potential for targeted messaging; instead, he became its victim.
Today’s candidates are fortunate that, now, when even the slightest policy flub or on-screen slip can cost a candidate success, we have the mistakes of our predecessors to look to as examples of what not to do when attempting to earn the people’s confidence.