Trippi on Web Campaigning

It has been three years since Joe Trippi turned political campaigning into a cybersport. But already Trippi's time as the manager of Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid seems like ancient Internet history. Trippi brought blogging to politics, but this week, one of the most-read political bloggers, Markos Moulitsas, declared that campaign blogging was "over." And while Dean's organization was the first to woo the small donor online with an unprecedented number of  contibutions of $100 and under, political organizers are now preparing to lure $5 donors via text-messaging over cell phones. Even Meetup.com, the social-networking site the Dean campaign used to spawn thousands of informal gatherings, has been eclipsed by the MySpace.com. “By 2008, people will be saying Trippi was so yesterday; the Dean campaign was so primitive," says the 49-year-old consultant. Still, he hasn't exited the political scene. This month, he's been in Moscow working with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace helping Russian political parties organize on the Internet. He worked on British Prime Minister Tony Blair's re-election campaign, and a few days ago another of his clients, Romano Prodi, was sworn in as Italy's prime minister. Here in the states, he's helping Kweisi Mfume of Maryland in a Senate bid this fall, among other candidates. NEWSWEEK's Susanna Schrobsdorff spoke with Joe Trippi about the next frontier in campaign technology and why it's not all about the money.  Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: So what's new in campaign technology?

Joe Trippi: There are a lot more social-networking tools out there than what we were using during the Dean campaign. People focus on the Internet fund-raising we did, but the money is the easy part. Money is the one thing we know that the Internet does. The real issue is how do you translate it into persuasion and into organizing and social networking. We had a glimpse of that in 2003 and 2004 with meetups and offline organizing. Social activities became part of the glue that held the [Dean] meetings together. Sometimes it was even something like people saying, "Gosh, I like her, I wonder if she's coming to the next meeting?" I expect even more of that now.

What did you think of the immigration protests and the way those were organized?

I think the cell phone had more to do with that than the Internet. A lot of that wasn't done on the Internet, it was done on the cell phone. Members of that community may not have a $2,000 laptop, but they probably have a $20 text-messaging cell phone.

Is the cell phone the next frontier in campaign technology?

I think text messaging is going to be more important than ever. The Dean campaign became the biggest text-messaging network in the United States in 2003 and 2004, but it was clear that the technology wasn't mature enough to actually move anything. There weren't enough people in the U.S. doing the thumb thing. But three years later, look at the success of the proimmigration campaign. We may be talking about the Great Text-Messaging Campaign of 2008, not the Great Blog Campaign.

How did you use text messaging?

What we were doing was actually manipulating media coverage. If Tim Russert [host of NBC's "Meet the Press"] ordinarily has a viewership of 250,000 people and you text-message or instant-message 600,000 people and tell them that Howard is going to be on Tim Russert on Sunday, then all of the sudden Russert has his normal 250,000 plus another 100,000 or 150,000 people that normally don't watch, well, his producers figure out pretty damn fast that they have a 50 percent higher viewership when they have on Howard Dean.

What's your relationship with Howard Dean now?

It's nonexistent. I've talked to him once since the election. What I say now is that I have a lot of respect now for why the Beatles didn't get back together.

Have blogs become too much of a rumor mill?

We've always had accuracy issues. When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were running against each other, John Adams had to figure out: how you go negative on the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence? What they did was they got a bunch of guys up on horses—because that was the communications method of the day—and they ran around screaming at the top of their lungs: "Jefferson is dead!" So Jefferson had to get a bunch of guys on horses screaming: "Jefferson lives!" So basically in every communication method you've ever had, you've had you have that problem of what about people who spread stuff that isn't true—muckrakers.

How do we separate the inaccurate bloggers from the rest?

If a blog lies to you repeatedly, you'll eventually stop listening.

What are you working on now?

There's this incredible movie coming out June 2 called “Peaceful Warrior.” I screened it and I absolutely believe that people need to see it. Nick Nolte stars and it's about how most people don't really live their lives—they're just sleepwalking. The cool thing about that is that we're doing the first ever Internet teleconference in six theaters with Nick Nolte and the other stars. I helped set up the community blog on the site, as well. It's about motivating people to get involved in something that's bigger than yourself.

Like campaigns?

Yes, among other things.

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