July 7, 2003
Dean has an edge in online efforts
Candidate builds buzz with Web-savvy skills
By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean likes to call his insurgent bid for the Democratic presidential nomination "an extraordinary grass-roots campaign."
But there may be as much copper and fiber-optic wire in those roots as grass.
Much of the recent buzz surrounding Dean's formerly underdog campaign has been generated through his aggressive use of the Internet and the virtual communities that have grown up around "Weblogs," chat rooms and online meeting sites. They have been powerful organizing and fund-raising tools for the candidate.
"The Internet has essentially turned Howard Dean into a top-tier candidate," said Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Maine and an expert on political use of the Internet. "It has allowed him to reach out to potential supporters in a way that was not available to lesser-known candidates years ago."
The other Democratic candidates – Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun – have Web sites to organize support and raise money. But Dean is viewed as making the most of the technology's potential so far.
"From the very beginning, we recognized the Internet had changed dramatically even since the 2000 election and we were going to make it an integral part of our campaign," Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi said.
Some question whether Dean can maintain his momentum as the early primaries approach and ground-level organizing, television ads and media coverage grow in importance.
"Whether that (Internet organizing) can really translate into turning people out to vote in an Iowa caucus where they have to be in a specific place at a specific time remains to be seen," Corrado said.
"For any campaign to take the next step, it obviously has to reach beyond those people who spend a lot of time on the Internet," said Chris Lehane, a Kerry adviser.
Of course, Dean is not banking entirely on cyberspace in his bid to win the party's nomination to challenge President Bush in 2004. Like the other leading candidates for the nomination, he has a more traditional campaign organization as well.
But he has used the Internet as a relatively low-cost way to generate enough attention and money to secure a position among the leading contenders in the nine-candidate Democratic field.
Dean received the most votes in an online primary held last month by the liberal group MoveOn.org. That was followed by a surge in donations to his campaign, more than half raised online.
Last week, Dean supporters who network through a Web site called Meetup.com and gather monthly in cities and towns across the country, were asked to write letters on Dean's behalf to thousands of likely Iowa caucus participants.
Other candidates have certainly taken notice. Kerry, considered Dean's top rival in New Hampshire and Iowa, recently became a paying Meetup.com client. Like Dean, that gives him access to the e-mail addresses of supporters who use the site.
Dean is the hottest topic on Meetup.com, with more than 58,000 "members," while Kerry had about 5,100 members.
"Yes, it's surprising," Meetup.com Vice President Myles Weissleder said of the political interest being generated on a site frequented by stay-at-home moms in Rochester, N.Y.; body modifiers in Stockholm, Sweden; and Elvis fans in Lisbon, Portugal. "This is all untested water. We don't know what's around the corner."
While Dean might be making fuller use of the Internet, he is hardly the first politician to discover its power. Arizona Sen. John McCain still holds the record for raising the most money online in a 24-hour period – $1 million after he won the New Hampshire Republican primary in 2000. (Dean raised about $800,000 the day before the June 30 reporting deadline, according to his campaign.)
"Given Howard Dean's success, I suspect we will see the other candidates put more emphasis on online fund-raising in the second half of this year than they did in the first half of this year," Corrado said.
He and other experts cautioned that there are many unknowns about the long-term impact of Dean's Internet organizing on the 2004 primary. For instance, Dean's online appeal may be limited to a relatively narrow group of affluent, more liberal voters.
"The vast majority of folks – particularly people who are poor, older Americans, the people who have the most at stake in this election – simply are not spending a lot of time on the Internet," said Kerry adviser Lehane.
And as Dean moves beyond the issue that first drew attention to his candidacy – his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq – he will have to continue to craft a message that appeals to a large number of Democratic primary voters.
"It's a marvelous tool for activating people. But you have to get them interested first," said Marion Just, a political science professor at Wellesley College, near Boston.
Dean campaign manager Trippi, who is from California's Silicon Valley, called the Internet effort "the starting point but not the end point."
"The Internet campaign is the core of how it's organized. But then it's the people who go out and bring other people in. They go out and these people actually knock on doors and do other things," he said.
Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.