How Dean Staff Keeps The Candidate’s WebSite On the Cutting Edge

Who knows what sort of president Howard Dean might be. He’s already proved, though, that he’s a great Internet CEO.

By LEE GOMES Wall St. Journal

Now that more people are starting to pay attention to the presidential race, folks tend to know two things about the physician and former Vermont governor. First, that with a tough anti-Bush message, he has become the surprise Democrat front-runner. And second, that he has used the Internet to get that way.

Of course, candidates have been using the Web for as long as the Web has been around, and everyone running for president next year has a home page by now. The Dean Web efforts, though, are vastly more complex than the position papers and candidate pictures that make up most other political Web pages. They are, in fact, a sprawling and remarkably sophisticated online empire — one that quickly apes anything interesting happening on the Web itself, something made clear by a tour of the site conducted last week by Nicco Mele, the campaign’s 25-year-old Web master.

So far, the Web’s main contribution has been in contributions. Mr. Dean had used the Web to raise far more money than any of his Democratic rivals, without, he boasts, having to grovel before special interests. That money has bought respectability in the Beltway and rising poll numbers outside it.

There is much more to the Dean Web than fund raising, though. There are Dean Friendster clones, Dean streaming videos, even an ingenious system for keeping flames off Dean blogs.

In fact, at this point in the campaign, the Dean online operation is doing to political campaigns what did to retailing. For example, in the old-fashioned world of bricks-and-mortar politics, campaigns would send in a crew of advance people several days before a big event to drum up crowds. Dean staffers just send out e-mails, and thousands of supporters materialize.

Mr. Mele has been with the campaign since May, and came to Mr. Dean from a job as Web master for Common Cause, the government-reform group. He has the same sort of geek-progressive résumé as most of the other eight people on his growing staff.

One of their biggest jobs is just keeping up with rapidly growing traffic. Another is coming up with new features, like "Deanlink," which allows supporters to meet each other. It was inspired by, the social-networking site that is a word-of-mouth phenomenon.

Scattered throughout are other novelties, like a feature that lets supporters print customized campaign signs on their home printers. And there is "Troll Goal," named after the folks who post inflammatory messages on Web sites. Whenever a troll flames a Dean blog, a Dean booster donates more money. The troll realizes he is only helping the candidate, and stops.

Volunteers help, too, as with, showing Dean voters making testimonials like those in Apple Computer’s famous "Switch" ad campaign.

Mr. Mele said the campaign’s heavy use of the Web was a combination of predisposition and coincidence. Early this year, he said, the campaign began noticing that Dean groups were mushrooming on Web sites such as Meetup and Yahoo. Since the campaign had no money, the fact that supporters were organizing themselves online was a godsend.

Mr. Mele and other Web-savvy staffers then urged the campaign to aggressively use the Web, and were encouraged to do so by the candidate and his campaign manager, Joe Trippi. Not only is using the Web far less expensive than a traditional campaign, it also resonates with the candidate’s grass-roots, insurgent themes.

Mr. Mele prides himself on being a Dean-style straightshooter. But when talking about the software he uses, he starts to get careful — downright political. It turns out that DeanForAmerica runs on open-source software, largely because at the outset, that was all anyone could afford.

But Mr. Mele is careful to say that just because the campaign uses Linux, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with other kinds of software. After all, the folks at Microsoft are patriotic Americans, too, and this is a campaign of inclusion.

Just as other Democratic candidates are beginning to copy some of Dean’s politics, especially his slashing attacks on President Bush, so too are some beginning to copy his Web tactics, like blogs. Mr. Mele, naturally, is suspicious. He says it’s not the technology that is pushing Mr. Dean forward, but the candidate, and the fact that a big chunk of Americans seem eager to hear his message.

The big challenge for Mr. Dean in the months ahead is electability. For Mr. Mele, it’s scalability. In March, everything was running on a $40-a-month Web-hosting service. These days, they’re about to move to an industrial-grade hosting facility, to better handle the Google-style collection of generic PCs that powers things.

Mr. Mele worries aloud about how the same setup that now handles tens of thousands of daily users may soon need to be handling untold millions. There are, of course, much worse problems he and his campaign could have.

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