Do The Impossible

My Crash Course on Presidential Politics Inside the Howard Dean Campaign

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August 18, 2002


I listened as Howard Dean, standing on a wooden crate in front of an American flag, spoke to a group of New Hampshire Democrats in, of all places, Hermano’s Mexican restaurant.

            “We are a grassroots campaign.  We’re probably going to have less money than everybody else, but we’re going to make up for that in enthusiasm and volunteers.”

            The primary election was almost a year and a half away. But it wasn’t too early for him to talk about his bid for president of the United States.

            The small group of Democrats who came to the Mexican restaurant in Concord, New Hampshire, that Sunday morning may have recognized Howard as the sitting governor of their neighboring state, but they knew little about him as a presidential candidate.  He, however, knew exactly why he was running – and how he planned to win the Democratic nomination.

            Standing on the box that served as a stage, he outlined his campaign strategy. He would compete in the three states with the earliest votes – Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina – before continuing on to primaries and caucuses in several big states on Super Tuesday.  He would build an enormous e-mail list of supporters. And he would appeal to the common sense of the American voter.  An American voter, in this case, who may have wondered if a successful presidential campaign could really begin at a Mexican restaurant a few hundred miles south of the Canadian border.

January 19, 2004

I sat in the front row across the aisle from Howard – settled in by the window, as was his custom – as person after person squeezed into our 130-seat charter airplane shortly before midnight.

            First came Joe Trippi, the campaign manager who drank a Diet Pepsi, beside Paul Maslin, the campaign’s pollster, and Steve McMahon, Howard’s media consultant.

            Next came the rock singer Joan Jett, an avid supporter and performer at Howard’s rallies.  Wearing a tight black T-shirt and pants over her tattooed skin, she couldn’t have looked more different from her candidate in his business suit and penny loafers.

            Next came more than 75 journalists representing newspaper, magazine and television outlets nationwide.  Crews from ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC joined reporters from the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Associated Press, Reuters, and cameramen from Vermont’s major television stations.

            Waiting for the plane to take off, campaign staff smiled and chatted – but not because they were happy.  Many were trying to put on a brave face while some had yet to fully comprehend what had happened.

            Howard had just placed third in the Iowa caucuses.

            When the campaign began we would have toasted such an improbable achievement.  But instead of celebrating, Howard sat in his seat motionless, not saying a word as people passed by.

            He had reached a level of success that no one – Howard included – ever imagined possible.  Hundreds of thousands of people had joined his campaign. Tens of thousands had come out to hear him speak.  He had led in nationwide polls.  He had shattered fundraising records.  His face had graced the covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines when the press had deemed him the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.  In a matter of hours, everything had changed.

            Flight attendants walked through the airplane offering champagne and shrimp ordered for a celebration. Howard sat with his shoes off, his feet up against the bulkhead.  His face was a shade of gray that was slightly lighter than the charcoal suit he was wearing.  He was silent.  The look of disbelief on his face told the story.  The self-proclaimed “greatest grassroots campaign of the modern era” had been cut down.

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What happened?  How did a man from a small state defy all the odds to draw big crowds, contributions and coverage, only to see it all fall away in a matter of months?

            I’ve read all the explanations by the press, other politicians and pundits. But they weren’t working beside Howard in the Mexican restaurant, on the chartered plane or at the countless thousands of campaign stops from Bangor, Maine, to Los Angeles, California.

            I was.

            Having worked with Howard since he ran for Vermont lieutenant governor in 1990, I worked as his closest advisor through his 11½ years as governor and right to the end of his 2004 presidential campaign.

            Many people wonder what really happens inside a presidential campaign. What’s the role of the candidate?  Consultants?  The press and public?  What about money?  Advertising?  The Internet?  Their questions aren’t simply about the drama (or comedy) of the Dean campaign, but also about the state of U.S. presidential politics in the 21st century.

            After traveling two years and more than half a million miles, here’s what I saw and heard.