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The Truman Show

Dateline: Iowa City, from Chris Lydon and Matt Stoller

This is Dean’s speech at the Iowa Memorial Union: Part One Part Two.

     Listen to the Dean rally at the Iowa Memorial Union and hear what we saw: Dean’s campaign is as modern on the ground as it is on the web. All the others feel retro next to the surging musical youth and energy of his enormous crowd–up to the fire code limit around 2000. Live performers, Tom Harkin, an SEIU pitch, Joan Jett, back-to-school free spirits from the University of Iowa crowd, precinct workers refining their caucus lists at tables all around the ballroom. This campaign is thriving, no matter the media line. We simply don’t believe the Des Moines Register tracking polls that had Dean plummeting toward a 16 percent showing. Our guess is that the “surge” the newspapers talk about is not really Kerry or Edwards. It is still Howard Dean’s race in the pulse and conviction of his troops. It was really cold last night, and still, they showed.

     It was funny to observe last night how the Dean followers in the flesh match the Deaniacs online. They talk to each other, for cryin’ out loud, as they wait for the candidate to arrive. They have an air of purpose, but a lot of mellow friendly feeling as well. The room was crowded but it was nonetheless easy for visitors to move around and make conversation. The lounge Dean used was crowded, but everyone had space, and could and did walk around. There were costumes, union people in purple shirts, Dean volunteers in orange hats (the room hit firecode capacity, at which point the volunteers left to allow for more Iowans to attend), a Dean mascot, and signs, real grassroots signs.

     It made you think of Tim Berners-Lee’s observation about our “fractal” society, in which people can make community in a cluster of 3, or 3000, and represent a state of 3-million, or a country of 300-million. It also reminded us–it’s a cliche by now–that we say the Dean campaign is “open source.” Well, it is, in the sense that if the candidate hadn’t shown up, somebody else would have made a speech and directed the labors of the campaign on caucus night. And if Howard Dean actually disappeared, these people in the Iowa Memorial Union might know how to rally with their kindred spirits on the Web to draft another standard bearer by next week. So we say: even if the Kerry surge is real ( purchased with some $2.5 million of the candidate’s own money), and even if the Edwards surge is real, the Dean phenomenon is something else. It is the future.

     To contrast: John Kerry and Gary Hart gave speeches in Iowa City on Saturday channeling the ghost of JFK, with hand gestures chopping at the air and Boston-trained skilled political hacks corralling the crowd into small spaces so it appeared larger than it was. The crowd jostled against itself, set against the angular structure of the suburban mall which was chosen, it seems, so the crowd would feel its own largeness. It was a Boston political event done by Bostonians, and it worked well for what it was. Kerry has dumped everything in favor of Iowa, and it shows in the Iowans complaining of all the calls they are getting from the Kerry organization, and in events like Saturday’s made-for-TV special.

     The Dean event, by contrast, didn’t just appear large and boisterous; it was large and boisterous. Dean’s appearance wasn’t derivative of a former TV icon so much as what you imagine Harry Truman’s presence to have been; a guy angry at plutocrats looting the country and speaking in staccato rhythm about it. ‘You know how mean these right-wingers are?’ Dean spouts before launching into a story about how the Department of Labor is telling employers not to worry about a new law mandating higher overtime for low paid workers because all they have to do to compensate is pay their workers less. And while other candidates might talk about the Republican administration and its problems, Dean just gets right down it. They are mean. But the Dean experience went beyond a Trumanesque figure of righteous populist fury; the event was staged along the very principles that animate his software: community oriented, fractal, and organizationally solid and self-sufficient.

     In terms of strategy, it’s clear that turnout for the caucuses will be very high, and that Dean has a high depth of support among his supporters. Still, Dean went out of his way to greet the Kucinich enthusiasts at his own rally last night, saying that Kucinich was the only authentic anti-war candidate in the race with him. If you’re guy doesn’t make it, he said, join us because we need all the support we can get. We gather that the Dean campaign is worried about their shortage of second place preferences, people who aren’t pro-Dean are anti-Dean. Lots of 1’s, very few 2’s. So he won’t have a big cushion in places where he doesn’t have a good start. The Kerry campaign, which we think bought their surge by dumping cash into the state, just hasn’t had the time to clean out the Democratic lists and teach their supporters, but they are banking on candidates who don’t meet the 15% threshold within caucuses to send their supporters over to Kerry. Every campaign is pursuing that strategy, because it’s clearly meant to capitalize on the anti-Dean sentiment among Iowans. What does this mean? Well, that’s not clear. Dean canvassers are telling us that many anti-Dean folk are saying abruptly that they are voting for Kerry/Edwards/Gephardt/whatever, but aren’t going to the caucus. This, of course, suggests that the other campaigns aren’t educating their supporters that you have to go to the caucus to support your candidate. Are any Dean people saying they’ll vote for Dean without going to the caucus? No, we were told. If they’re for Dean, they know they have to caucus. Beyond that, we don’t know what’s going on, and the polls are basically as much of a crapshoot as getting information based on talking to random Iowans listening in their own low-key way to Joan Jett.

     So that’s what we did. And for what it’s worth, we think that Dean’s superior organization and dedicated supporters will make the difference.

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