Interview with Joe Trippi: Howard Dean's 2004 Campaign Manager, Now Advising John Edwards

Interview with Joe Trippi: Howard Dean's 2004 campaign manager, now advising John Edwards

Fri Jun. 29, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

Joe Trippi: The one thing I need to make you aware of is that literally minutes ago the Edwards campaign announced I was coming on as the media team and senior advisor so now I'm aligned. I've been neutral and people have been interviewing me as a neutral observer, but that's not the case anymore; I've now become a lunatic, or proven that I'm a lunatic.

Mother Jones: Okay. We'll disclose that. What is the most exciting new use of technology in politics?

JT: Video tools. YouTube has dramatically changed the game. It's a big leg up-the ultimate leveraging tool of this cycle. I think we'll look back in 2008 and say, "Wow, the president, his or her campaign really got moving after that YouTube moment," and we'll also look back and say, "Wow, that front-runner was really rolling and got crashed into the ground because they got caught by a citizen with a cell-phone camera in an unguarded moment and said something they shouldn't have." It's going to be a YouTube campaign.

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Look at the "1984" spot—4 million Americans have already watched it. I guarantee you 4 million Americans have not watched any of the paid ads yet. I actually think that the biggest innovation is not from the campaign but from individual supporters out there that are doing really unique things using tools like YouTube.

Also I think that campaigns, frankly, have been pretty sterile. I know I just joined the Edwards campaign, but I'm not trying to pick on somebody—I'm not—but Hillary Clinton sitting on the couch, announcing her candidacy to us on the Net was innovative, but it was scripted. The medium demands authenticity, and where we're seeing more of that is not from the campaigns, but from the citizens.

MJ: On the flip side, which technology is the most overhyped right now?

JT: I would say text messaging on cell phones is not what it has been in South Korea or in other nations.

MJ: Which candidate is doing the most important things?

JT: I just signed on with Edwards, but one of the reasons I did is that both Obama and Edwards have been two of the more leading-edge campaigns of this cycle. Clinton hasn't been doing badly, though. Look, you know, this is the year in which Hillary Clinton literally announced her campaign virtually, and no one would have predicted four years ago that every single campaign would be trying to push the envelope and the front-runner would be literally announcing her campaign on the Net. One of the problems is that the front-runner always has to be more careful. I don't think the Clinton campaign is not pushing the envelope because they don't know what to do. It's not pushing the envelope because she's the front-runner.

MJ: What is the downside for the front-runner engaging with the web?

JT: I've never seen the downside. It's not just on the web; they tend to be like this with anything. They think, "If I don't fumble the ball, I'm going to win because I'm in the lead." It tends to really hurt you online because that means you're scripted. The Net is looking for authenticity and front-runners just don't have that.

MJ: The next one is a two-part question: What part of the political use of new web tools makes politics more democratic?

JT: Obama just proved it. One hundred thousand people giving 25 or 30 bucks can outraise a bunch of people going to $2,300 dinners that have an axe to grind because they are oil lobbyists or whatever. If 5 million Americans decided tomorrow morning to give $100 to a candidate—that's half a billion dollars. There would be no reason for that candidate to talk to an oil company, an energy company, a health care company ever again.

MJ: Any downside?

JT: I think it is all positive. You have a lot of people that will say it is easy to move a rumor around, but we have had that problem with every medium since the horse was the best way to communicate.

MJ: Well, I was curious whether you had any thoughts how web strategy for candidates will be different than it was back in 2004?

JT: Looking for new policy or new ways of doing things—the establishment front-runner is not likely to do that. On the Republican side—I know this is Mother Jones—I bet Sam Brownback does more innovative things than McCain or Giuliani. It's the only chance he's got. The establishment of both parties, they don't really want to change anything; they're happy and comfortable with each other.

MJ: So, it's a tool for the flowering of the progressive movement?

JT: The progressive community continues to be the big innovators on the Net. Real innovation is going to come from the dark-horse campaigns and the progressive campaigns. That is why the progressive blogosphere is doing so well.

MJ: I was wondering if you can talk about the evolution of social networking as it relates to politics.

JT: It took the Dean campaign nine months to get to 100,000 contributors. Obama did it in the first quarter. It's not just the candidate; it is how the technologies have evolved. We didn't have Facebook, MySpace, YouTube. I think in 2008 people will look back at the Dean campaign and say, "Wow, that was so primitive, so yesterday." I think any of these campaigns are capable of blowing the doors off and really transforming our politics.

MJ: When I spoke to Jerome Armstrong, he talked about how campaigns would have to do a lot more outreach than the Dean campaign did, i.e., have people actually go to the blogs and post in the comments section of the political blogs for the candidates because that's where the voters are now. He stressed that the campaigns aren't doing outreach to the blogs, that they haven't appointed anybody whose job it is to go and post in the comments section and try to control the message. Do you have that sense?

JT: I don't think they're doing it well at all. We had the Dean campaign threads on Smirking Chimp. I, as the campaign manager, was posting and commenting on MyDD, the Daily Kos, and Talking Left. We didn't just have some volunteer, some blogger, doing it; everyone from the campaign manager down was doing it. You don't see that at all. The one person who is doing this is Elizabeth Edwards, who does a lot of it herself on Daily Kos. I'm not pumping her 'cause I work for them, but she's it; you don't see it permeate throughout the Edwards campaign like it did in the Dean campaign.

MJ: I'm surprised that the other campaigns haven't been doing that more.

JT: They don't think it's important. You get Daily Kos, MyDD, Atrios, and two or three other blogs carrying the same story about you in the same timeframe and suddenly you have a readership rivaling the New York Times.

MJ: To what degree have bloggers become a cog in the political machine they are raging against?

JT: They did start as a movement to challenge the authority of the establishment. They're never going to be accepted—maybe over 30 years. But right now, they're still the agitators moving the party in a progressive direction. I don't think there is any threat to them becoming part of the establishment in the near future. I do think the party has gotten smarter in understanding the power of the blogosphere and wants to build good relations with them so they can raise money.

MJ: Zephyr Teachout famously said the Dean campaign hired Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong as consultants in order to be sure they said positive things about Dean.

JT: We didn't hire them to say positive stuff about Dean. It was the toughest decision I had ever made. Jerome in particular was the biggest cheerleader for Howard Dean on the Net, and he told me if I hired him he was going to stop blogging. So actually, I didn't hire him to say good things about Howard Dean, because the second I hired him he stopped blogging.

The problem is, within every campaign now, there aren't a lot of people on Capitol Hill or in the normal press secretary room who know anything about who the best bloggers are or how you would get to them or how to get the stories to them. Right now what happens is, if you want to run for president, you go hire someone who you hope knows who the hell to call at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Well, guess what—none of those people know who the best bloggers are, who the progressive bloggers are, what their email addresses are, how to reach them, how to write a blog, or how to get a story out to them. We're riding across the prairie; we're out in the Wild West in the first wagon trains. You want to hire somebody who's actually led an expedition before, knows how to drive a wagon?

MJ: When campaigns hire bloggers, don't they bring people to the campaign who follow their blog?

JT: I think that is a mistake to think of it that way. Campaigns have made that mistake. We hired them more as press secretaries. I think it is a mistake to hire someone because of their following. I didn't agree with Howard Dean on everything as his campaign manager. We don't hold press secretaries to that standard. You could be Howard Dean's press secretary in the last campaign and Kerry's secretary this time and nobody says, "How come you made all those statements against the war last time and now you're Kerry's press secretary putting out these statements for the war?" Nobody says that if you're a press secretary, but if you're a blogger they do. It is not established yet how a campaign blogs and how the blogger relationship is; it will mature over time. I was for Dean last time and said a billion things against Edwards. This time I'm for Edwards. [Bloggers] are not really integrated yet. But eventually, which blogger you hire will be like which press secretary you hire, and we won't really delve into every word they ever wrote.

 

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