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  • Writer's pictureLibby Johnson

Caucus ’04: The Art of Campaigning Online

This is the ninth installment in a series of 13 blog posts, each covering the events of a specific historic caucus and placing it in its political context. Each post will accompany reference material currently archived at the Drake University Political Papers Archive.


After the results were released on the evening of the Iowa Democratic caucus in 2004, the Howard Dean campaign was met with bittersweet news. The popular Vermont Governor’s third-place finish was lower than they had anticipated, but on the other hand, he had still managed to earn one of the ‘three tickets’ out of Iowa and was in a decent position going into the primary of the neighboring state New Hampshire. After all, it was not unprecedented for a candidate who placed third in Iowa to win the presidency. In the meantime, Dean had a room full of energetic supporters waiting to hear him speak, and he was presented with the difficult task of reassuring them that his campaign still had enough momentum to carry him to the White House. Before he went on stage, Dean got a pep talk from endorser and previous Iowa caucus victor, Senator Tom Harkin[i]. Harkin advised Dean to “pull off your jacket and let ‘er rip,” and he did just that. He ran on stage, feeding off the energy he got from the crowd. As he spoke, he let the excitement build until it finally exploded, letting out a hearty yell that was immediately picked up by television networks and replayed incessantly for days. The ‘Dean Scream,’ as the media called it, became a loud, vocal symbol of the end of Dean’s candidacy, as his campaign quickly fizzled out to make way for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. A few lucky Iowans, in a ballroom in West Des Moines the night of the caucuses, were there to see it happen.


In the summer of 2003, John Kerry struggled to find footing in the race. He watched from the

sidelines as Iowans couldn’t get enough of Howard Dean, every new poll showing him beating Kerry by wide margins. When funds got low, it became clear that he would have to change how he campaigned or drop out. He chose the former. After taking out a mortgage on his house to fund his campaign while he built it back up, Kerry decided to go all in on Iowa, spending most of his time here in the weeks leading up to the caucuses. He framed himself as the only candidate who had a chance to beat President Bush in the general election, and slowly but surely, Kerry began to build up his standing in Iowa. By the last poll before the caucus was released, he had finally gained enough support to outrank Howard Dean[ii].


Despite popular perception, the Dean Scream did not end Howard Dean's candidacy in the 2004 Democratic primary. Instead, it was a highly publicized moment near the end of a strong campaign that had run its course and was already showing signs of losing steam. Dean’s fall was more a matter of bad timing; if his peak popularity had happened in January of 2004 rather than the summer before, there is a good chance that he could have been the Democratic nominee.


One of the reasons Dean’s campaign was so successful early on was the way he could capitalize on a new way to reach voters: the internet[iii]. He made election history as the first candidate to publish a campaign website in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses. He increased his financial opportunities by allowing supporters to make donations online. He even bought advertisement space from Google to ensure that his campaign website would be the first thing that popped up when someone Googled ‘Howard Dean.’ The young programmers he hired were the first of their kind, using the website content and digital networks they produced to make a case for Dean in a much more cost-effective way than buying television airtime. After Dean dropped out, they entered the job market as the country's only team of experienced digital campaign programmers.


As is the norm in a reelection year, the Bush campaign was unopposed in the 2004 Republican caucus. After a smooth-sailing caucus season, he won comfortably against Kerry in the general. Previously, Bush’s approval ratings had skyrocketed following the ‘rally around the flag’ movement after the 9/11 attacks, and despite the pushback he got from the way he was handling the war in Iraq, he was able to complete his second term.


Once the Dean Scream had morphed into the first political meme of its kind, it became apparent that campaigning in the Internet era would require different strategies and techniques than the campaigns of years past. Although the full extent of the power of digital campaigning would not be genuinely realized for four more years, Howard Dean was ahead of the curve in realizing just how important of a tool the internet could be.

 

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[i] “Iowa’s Sen. Harkin Endorses Dean.” NBCNews.Com, NBCUniversal News Group, 9 Jan. 2004, www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna3918134.

[ii] “Iowa Caucus History: The Rise and Fall of Howard Dean in 2004.” YouTube, YouTube, 21 Jan. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9WrMtSdfa8.

[iii] Friess, Steve. “The Father of All Web Campaigns.” POLITICO, 30 Sept. 2012, www.politico.com/story/2012/09/how-deans-wh-bid-gave-birth-to-web-campaigning-081834.

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