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Tom Baxter

Georgia for Dean vets celebrate the dawn of digital politics

By Tom Baxter

They still remember that brief and glorious moment when everything clicked. The campaign they worked on didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to in the end, but a decade later, they can say they were there at the dawn of a new political era.

Last Friday night, a group of veterans of the 2004 Georgia for Dean campaign gathered at Manuel’s to remember those days and — apropos of the kind of campaign they ran — connect with others during the evening via Skype.

If you look it up, you’ll see that John Kerry and John Edwards split nearly all the vote in the Georgia Democratic presidential primary that year, and Howard Dean, the anti-establishment former Vermont governor who later became chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was a washout. He’d already dropped out of the campaign, but it was too late to change the ballot.

But the numbers don’t tell all the story.

According to Kimberly Krautter, one of the first handful of Dean supporters in the state, Georgians for Dean was the first presidential campaign group to create and use online fundraising, the first to utilize Yahoo Groups to build their support, the first to use Meetups as political campaign gatherings, and the first to use viral videos. It developed new systems for teaching grassroots groups how to get their message out and respond rapidly to attacks. Grassroots politics being what it is, there may be some debate among all those firsts, but this was without question a campaign which pioneered in the new, technology-driven politics of the 21st Century.

“It was amazing that we were able to create those things from the raw technology of the time,” said Tim Cairl, another ground-floor Deaniac.

Among those in that kernel group of Dean’s first supporters was Clay Johnson, a young programmer who gets much of the credit for the grassroots campaign’s technological savvy. Johnson went on that year to become the lead programmer for the Dean campaign. Later he was a co-founder of Blue State Digital, which played a big role in both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, and is currently involved in a project to make it easier for small companies to bid on government work. Johnson was in Washington for meetings and didn’t get to the weekend reunion until the following day, but later he spoke of what he considers its lasting legacy.

“The barriers for entry, for getting to be involved in politics, have gotten dramatically lower,” he said.

Phyliss Huster, who is credited with the idea of Meetups and the viral videos, was negotiating a licensing deal for a webmail product she invented and couldn’t make it, also.

It was “a unique combination of talents” that came together in those first small Dean gatherings, said Krautter, a public relations specialist who also blogs for The Huffington Post. And soon, thanks to the power of the internet to connect the like-minded, the gatherings weren’t small anymore.

As the campaign gathered strength through 2003, Meetups — big Meetups — started happening in cities outside Metro Atlanta. The original weekly Meetup got so big that it was kicked out by the bar in Decatur which had hosted it, and moved on to Manuel’s. Dean’s outspoken support for lesbian and gay rights also won him a lot of early volunteers. The Georgia campaign was the first, along with Oregon and New York, to go up on the Dean website, and claimed a presence in over a hundred counties.

“We had 14,000 people on our volunteer list. Not our email list, our volunteer list,” said Cairl.

Then came The Scream, as those who followed the ’04 campaign will always remember Dean’s meltdown in Des Moines following a disappointing finish in the Iowa Caucus. Not for the first time, a campaign which had shown great promise collapsed by the time Georgia held its primary.
But the digital politics first worked out here in Georgia has become increasingly significant. Krautter believes the strategies first employed by Georgia for Dean were a model not only for liberal efforts like the 99 Percent movement and the Obama campaigns, but for the Tea Party movement as well.

Several, but not all of those who came back Friday night have remained engaged in   politics, working in the Georgia Democratic Party or on local issues. There are at least three “Deanie babies” from couples who met during the campaign: Carter Dean Todd, son of Brian and Sarah Todd, who were in attendance Friday night, and Jordan and Elissa Smith, son and daughter of Allen and Cher Smith, who joined the group on Skype from Ohio.
They all voted for Obama, are happy to see Michelle Nunn in the U.S. Senate race, and would support Hillary Clinton if she is their party’s nominee in 2016. But what if Howard Dean were a candidate next time?

“Dean,” came the answer from around the long table of about 25 diehards, in the back room at Manuel’s, where hundreds once crowded at Dean Meetups. About some things, a decade makes no difference.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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