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Trippi: Unplugged in Iowa

BY Ari Melber | Tuesday, January 8 2008

These interview excerpts from December 31, 2007 were edited for length and clarity.

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?


The entire interview is available at The Nation.