A Conversation with Joe Trippi

A Conversation with Joe Trippi

John Edwards’s political consultant talks about web-driven organizing, why Hillary Clinton may be the next Howard Dean and how bloggers and mainstream media are covering the campaign.


Joe Trippi is one of the few political consultants who speaks frankly, even to the detriment of his clients, and loves democracy even more than he loves politics. I caught up with him for an hour-long conversation about his work for the John Edwards campaign, why Hillary Clinton might be the Howard Dean of 2008, and how the Iowa caucus is like the Internet.

These excerpts were edited for length and clarity.

How has web organizing changed from 2004 to 2008?

If you have 37,000 ones [committed supporters] that have been ID’d and your guy walks out in a dress the next day: how many ones do you think are still going? And when the organization pulls the ones… they’re not ones anymore.

And the 2004 video of [Dean] dissing the caucus was the dress?

The video of him dissing the caucus, telling the 78-year-old guy, “Shut up and sit down, you had your turn, it’s my turn now.” I can go on and on and on. I’m just saying that–I don’t do this to run [Dean] down, that’s not my point. My point is it’s [messed] up to say that a bunch of kids, or people who believed in a guy, somehow lost him the election or didn’t know what they were doing. Because they did! It doesn’t matter. Someone is going to do that here, I think it may be Obama.

What happened with Kerry [is] the Dean operation actually augmented the Kerry and the Edwards get-out-the vote operation. It was turning out people that were no longer for Howard Dean. It didn’t not turn out the 37,000 people–they all got pulled [and] they all got out. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t get them out, the problem was that they weren’t for [Dean anymore].

The national media decided, for a while at least, to tell a story about a two-person race [without Edwards]. But Edwards is leading in the DailyKos polls, tremendously popular online, does that have any impact here in Iowa?

It tends to not have much impact as it does other places because Iowa is [different]. Dean had 650,000 [online supporters] identified nationwide, 2,100 were in Iowa. The state is much older. 50 percent of caucus attendees will be 65 or older. [Note: Trippi proved himself wrong here: it turned out that 22 percent of the 2008 Iowa caucus attendees were 65 and older, the youngest turnout in history.] That’s 50 percent; median would be about 62. The state is one of the oldest states in the country. It’s one of the least wired of any state in the country.

How do you see Internet organizing working in other states? Just the fact that you have those extra people to touch from a field perspective, or the narrative?

On a big day like February 5, where you suddenly are in a bunch of states, there’s no way for any campaign to compete with its own resources that day. It’s got to decentralize. Count on lots of supporters. And frankly, there’s not a whole lot that paid media can do on that day. Twenty states, you could blow all of whatever Obama’s got in the bank on California all by itself and still not have a penny left for any other state.

At some point between New Hampshire and South Carolina, the campaign loses its ability to do it. At that point, there’s no way a campaign can do what has to happen on February 5th. The traditional old style, top-down centralized campaign structure doesn’t work. Twenty states and all you’ve got is the candidate on a tarmac and what you’ve built on the Net in terms of being able to decentralize and mobilize in all states.

So you think, by accident, this calendar makes the web even more important in a long race. So that helps you and Obama if there is a long race?

Yeah. And I think Clinton’s at a disadvantage.

If the race narrows to a long race between two people, then you think the person that’s not Clinton with web organizing is more likely to win.

Yes, because they can put up organizing kits. How else are you going to do this? When you look at Iowa, Iowa is easy. Its six Congressional districts, you know, you spend two years there, then all of a sudden you’ve got one month and twenty states and no resources. There’s only one way: decentralized people taking responsibility, the campaign giving up power, using the tools.

One of the most effective things from Dean’s Internet team–and the people writ large–were able to do was build very resilient counter-narratives that eventually competed with or overtook the MSM narrative. So the idea that what 300 people in Washington define as a bad appearance on Meet the Press didn’t have to be a bad appearance.

Can you identify anything [like that] for Edwards this cycle?

No. First of all I don’t think a lot of that is ever going to happen that way again…. I think a lot of the things that you saw worked for Dean are not likely to have that kind of critical mass until there’s a nominee this time. Because essentially we were the nominee of that– whatever that is–last time. There was a reason you could have that narrative happen because the whole thing worked almost like a monolithic thing. MyDD, DailyKos, all of them were in support of the one campaign that understood that they existed and pretty much couldn’t stand the way all the other campaigns. It was a creation. I don’t think in this campaign–a lot of people really like Edwards, a lot of people really like Obama, you just don’t have that same critical mass concentrated in any one place to drive a counter-narrative yet. That doesn’t mean that two days after Iowa it won’t coalesce around somebody and that could start to happen.

The other thing that’s different about this time is it’s harder to coalesce something without anybody spotting it. Half the freaking reporters are–well, not half, 100 percent of the reporters are reading the blogs and trying to spot and jump in front of the story, the narrative, before it ever gets going because they’re freaked out about being caught off guard by some narrative they didn’t see. So it becomes part of the mainstream message before it even became a–uh…

It’s a hyper co-optation.

Yes, They’re always on it. Whereas before we could be saying that’s right about Howard Dean, and [it] would spin up. And then all of a sudden one day they woke up and were like “what the [hell] is this?!” So there was a counter-narrative to the mainstream media. Now, you can wake up tomorrow and Katie Couric is giving voice to something that you and I spotted on the blogs this morning. Why? Because some freaking producer was on MyDD, spotted something and did the story. Now all of a sudden the blogs are mimicking that.

Do you think–the trend you describe where folks are trying to jump and get ahead so much–does that mean that the political press is any more honest? Or do you think they’re just as bad as they were before?

I think they’re like ridiculously bad. This whole thing, the whole year was between Obama and Hillary. Why? Because they raised $80 million bucks? By the way, it’s the same mistake they made with Dean. The big reason they kept saying Dean was so fricking amazing was because of the money.

In a sense what you’re saying is Hillary Clinton can be the Howard Dean of 2008.

She could be.

In that she’s getting all of this attention for things that [will not lead to her victory]?

Right. I think both her and Obama could be that.

It’s hard to see why the [media] keeps doing it, because even if money matters, every cycle some people have a lot of money and only one person wins. So it’s sort of weird to say well we’re going to love the people who have a lot of money, when only one of them can win, and a Huckabee can come out of nowhere. So what are [they] even talking about?

Well, what’s really interesting is how the [Inter]net falls for it too. [Getting] drawn into the same old bag of trips. [Many bloggers say] “Who’s got the most money, who’s higher in the polls?”

Why are they doing that?

I think part of it is that, in a lot of ways, they haven’t figured out where they’re at yet. What I mean by that is, are we still the renegades trying to reform the Democratic Party? Or are we part of the Democratic Party trying to beat the Republicans?. 2004 was much more clearly trying to take out the establishment of the Democratic Party.

And in ’06 putting so much effort into a intramural race in Connecticut, when we had bigger fish to fry, but it was also very important?

Could be maturing, could be a good sign.

But what should matter? Should it be ideology, should it be political strategy? What should be the difference?

I’d like to think there’s still some place where principle matters. There’s plenty of pragmatists out there. There’s nothing wrong with standing on principle and not compromising your principles. Which I thought the Ned Lamont thing was totally [good for]…. [But] the problem we’re having is we make the same mistake that we make about the mainstream media. it’s not one thing.

OK, but let’s narrow that down. I think the qualitative difference with, say, the top five or six Democratic blogs is they are now read by a very important group of people. That was not true before, and critical mass is fine, but you’re not going to have twenty-five blogs read by those people…. So those five or six bloggers, to every last one, they have avoided endorsing this time; they have largely not only accepted–but if anything reaffirmed–a set of top three candidates based on money. That’s what you’re saying.


Is that wrong? Should they change?

Yes. I think that there’s a real question. Look, I used to think that Iowa was the last place left where someone who had no shot, but just a suitcase and a Chevy, could drive around and if they had something to say could actually still had a chance to become president of the United States. I began to become concerned that… even that might not be true. I always thought thank God because the [Inter]net’s here, and it’s coming online just as all this other [stuff] is happening and it’s the place where some guy who has no shot [can make it]. [It’s] really interesting about this time around, because there are glimpses of both those worlds.

There’s a guy named Ron Paul who I don’t think has anything going for him except the Internet and how people are rallying around what he’s saying. You’ve seen Huckabee, not on the Net, but in Iowa, looks like he may get his [butt] kicked by Romney. [Note: Huckabee actually beat Romney in Iowa.] Slapped right back down by the establishment. What’s interesting is on the Democratic side, the point you said, that in too many ways I think we mimicked the mainstream media’s approach. I think there was a look at Richardson, maybe it was there wasn’t a candidate. it’s not the netroots’ fault that there wasn’t a second-tier candidate.

There wasn’t a fourth new candidate who was awesome?

Yeah. the one thing that I angst over is, hey, it just bothers me when I see so many of the top focusing on the same big three. Look I’m an Edwards person [so I should be] happy. But I’m talking as, taking [off] my Edwards hat and speaking more as somebody who really is a big believer in the netroots and the power [and] the hope it gives the American people.

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