Internet Becoming Candidates' Domain
Dean Leads Democrats in Using Web
By Lois Romano
Sunday, June 29, 2003
For six months now, former Vermont governor Howard Dean has been running an ever-expanding grass-roots campaign online, raising millions of dollars and bringing 128,000 passionate cybersupporters to his underdog presidential campaign.
His rivals grudgingly concede that Dean, 54, has clearly tapped into something. He is attracting the largest crowds of the nine Democratic contenders -- which his staff attributes almost entirely to his campaign's Internet reach. His supporters arguably are the most intense for this early in the process, tens of thousands of them self-organizing in about 300 cities once a month through their online contact, a Web site called Meetup.com.
It is Dean's hope that -- if he makes a strong showing in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire -- his Internet organization can catapult him to the next round of important February primaries in South Carolina, Arizona, Michigan and Virginia.
Still, skeptics argue that a strategy relying on scores of largely unknown, undirected Internet supporters cannot work in a television-driven era that favors well-funded candidates.
Dean will test the strategy Wednesday night at the monthly Dean Meetup.com gatherings. In an unprecedented grass-roots effort, the Dean campaign will try to harness its online support by asking each person who shows up at a Dean meeting to write a personal letter on the spot to one or two of the thousands of undecided voters in Iowa -- the first caucus state in the nation.
Last week, the campaign sent instructional packets to organizers in more than 200 meeting cities, identified by Meetup.com, the year-old free Web site that helps people who share an interest to gather in locations across the globe.
Started by a group of young Internet entrepreneurs from New York, Meetup.com has more than 387,000 members signed up to meet once a month on 1,300 topics, from knitting to Elvis to presidential candidates. Users find like-minded souls by entering their Zip codes and voting for local venues such as coffeehouses or bookstores. Dean's meetings are the first Wednesday of every month.
With more than 41,000 Meetup members to his name, Dean has been the top topic on the Web site for two months -- followed by the book club Bookcrossing and witches.
"We have the largest grass-roots organization in America right now, and we are going to try to utilize it," said Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi. "If television took the grass roots out of politics, the Internet will put it back in."
For any Internet strategy to work, say political observers, it is critical that Dean himself delivers a strong, consistent message -- something he struggled with on last week's "Meet the Press" on NBC but for months mastered with his strong antiwar message appealing to an angry, liberal demographic.
"I think [the Internet] could help an underdog with the right message break through," said Michael Cornfield, research director of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. "The Internet cannot get you the nomination, but it can get you the resources and organization to make you competitive in ways that are unheard of in American politics."
Since the late 1990s, the Internet has become the fastest-growing resource in U.S. politics. With more than half the nation online today, campaigns, special interests and political parties are hiring professional webmasters and pouring millions of dollars into Web sites to reach voters, shape opinion and raise money.
Politics began to see the power of Internet grass roots in 1998 when two Democratic activists in California, disgusted with the impeachment drumbeat, developed Moveon.com to energize like-minded people. Today, the site has become a grass-roots force, with 1.4 million members, raising millions of dollars for candidates. The site last week attracted more than 317,000 voters to its virtual Democratic "primary," which Dean finished first with 44 percent of the vote.
The Republican's National Committee's "Team Leader" program to disseminate its message has grown to 300,000 volunteers since its inception in 2002. RNC spokesman Jim Dyke said the party promotes the Web site in "all our phone and mail programs," adding that the RNC has shown a "steady increase in income as more and more donors go online."
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe said the DNC's e-mail list has grown from 70,000 to 1.4 million in a few years and will be a major focus of donor development. In a single appeal last week, the DNC raised $100,000 online in a day. In addition, the DNC is testing an "e-patriot" program, aimed at mobilizing activists, and will launch it to more than a million online Democrats this week.
Every major presidential campaign is raising money on Web sites. One of the first hires of the Bush reelection campaign was a Web manager for the campaign site. Dean has raised more than $2 million online, and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass) has raised $450,000 as of the first quarter. "It will be a major general election thrust for us," McAuliffe said. "We hope to bring the e-mail lists of all nine candidates in house eventually."
Dean is trying to perfect the grass-roots Internet model first used successfully by Jesse Ventura in his third-party campaign for Minnesota governor in 1998 and later applied nationally by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2000 presidential race.
McCain's campaign collected $2 million through his ambitious Web site in the 72 hours after he pulled a stunning victory over George W. Bush in New Hampshire. It was no accident. The campaign had spent months using the Internet to amass more than 100,000 volunteers, and braced for the anticipated win by adding four new servers. McCain never failed to mention the site publicly.
Internet and political experts say that with advances in high-speed Internet access, growth in home computers nationally and a nation far better tech-educated today, the Internet could be a bonanza for a similarly situated insurgent candidates willing to give up control and take risks and who often appeal to a particular disaffected demographic.
Historically, candidates who do well in Iowa and New Hampshire pick up momentum going into subsequent primaries. But long-shot, underfunded candidates -- such as Gary Hart in 1984 -- have been largely unprepared to take advantage of that boost.
According to "The Net and Nomination," a study led by Cornfield, "the Internet can be crucial force multiplier here, expanding the amplitude of the proverbial post-election day 'bounce' in public standing by swelling the campaign's volunteer ranks and funding coffers as if by magic."
Dean plans to take advantage of such an Internet strategy by combining an aggressive Internet campaign with traditional politicking and frontloading his efforts and resources into those early voting states.
The Dean campaign first began to see Internet movement earlier this year on the independent Meetup site. Trippi said that when the Dean numbers topped 1,000, he developed a more formal relationship with Meetup, paying the company $2,500 a month for services such as cross links to Dean's campaign site and the ability to offer Dean fliers for downloading.
This month, Kerry too entered into an agreement with Meetup -- but with 2,400 supporters signed up, he has not reached anywhere near Dean's numbers. Dean tries to attend Meetup meetings when he is on the road and plugs the site at rallies.
In an innovative move, the Dean campaign is stealing a play from corporate online advertising by buying ads that are displayed on search engine sites after users look for competitors' sites. For example, if users type in "George W. Bush" or "John Kerry," they will find a boxed link to Dean's campaign prominently displayed.
Max Fose, the architect of McCain's 2000 Internet operation, is convinced that given today's technological advances and Internet speed, Dean can pull off what McCain could not. "They have taken a concept and built a virtual community nationwide," Fose said. "At a moment's notice, they can mobilize hundreds of thousands of people that can be reached in 20 seconds."
But Dean's prime competitor in New Hampshire scoffs at the notion that Dean can substitute virtual politics for conventional politics. "The Dean campaign must be commended for their creativity," said Jim Jordan, Kerry's campaign manager. "But you do have to build up infrastructure down the road, and to do that you do have to spend money to hire staff in the states and to be seen in TV. . . . And it has to be done in those early days, way before first ballot is cast in New Hampshire."
Cornfield agrees that the Internet is a " tremendous tool among many tools," but that Dean will have to turn it to his advantage. "It will ultimately depend on stuff not visible online -- how well they are organizing the data that is coming in."
Political experts and academics nonetheless see the effort as a unique test case of the new power of online grass-roots politics and whether armchair techno-supporters can make a difference for a back-of-the-pack candidate.
"Our theory is that we are experiencing the 'perfect storm of democracy' today for this to work, "said Trippi, Dean's campaign manager. "It's the confluence of the right candidate, the growth of the Internet and our willingness to give up control and allow people to organize themselves. . . . It's a bottom-up approach -- the way this country was built."