Dean Of The Internet

2003/5/20 Howard Dean headshot, former Governor of Vermont. AP

Click by click, high school English teacher Sherry Stanley is working to help Democrat Howard Dean meet the tough requirements to get on Virginia's presidential ballot.

Through an e-mail list, she found dozens of Dean supporters in her state who helped get hundreds more to sign petitions. For the petition drive, she publicized launch parties on the candidate's Web site, where such events are deftly listed by ZIP code proximity.

Stanley is on her way to getting the 10,000 signatures needed to qualify in a state the Dean camp says would otherwise have been a close call for lack of money and staff.

Like no other political candidate, the former Vermont governor has used the grassroots power of the Internet to surge to the top tier of the Democratic presidential pack.

The Dean campaign's Internet fluency has enabled it to reach out to voters who feel disenfranchised, to persuade them to donate, and, perhaps most important, to encourage and co-opt independently organized projects by supporters like Stanley.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, I think even the most partisan Republican has to give Dean an 11," said Larry Purpuro, who coordinated the Republicans' e.GOP Project in 2000. "He's truly made it a platform for people to do a whole lot of things. It's not just a couple of gimmicks."

Other candidates have used the Internet before — Jesse Ventura to organize his successful 1998 run for Minnesota governor, Sen. John McCain to raise money following his New Hampshire primary win in 2000.

But not like this.

"Dean is doing both of those times ten, plus he is adding a number of dimensions," says Phil Noble, a Democratic political consultant who runs PoliticsOnline in Charleston, S.C.

Pretty good for someone who didn't know much about technology before this campaign.

Joe Trippi did, however. Dean's campaign manager, Trippi moved to Silicon Valley as a teen, studied aeronautical engineering and had advised high-tech firms like Progeny Linux Systems.

After Dean raised the idea of running a decentralized campaign, partly because he didn't have much money to hire staff, Trippi suggested the Internet. At the same time, Dean supporters were finding each other independently, using a Web site called Meetup.com designed for people with common interests.

"Did the Net find Howard Dean or Howard Dean find the Net?" Trippi asks. "It was a little of both."

By treating the Internet as integral and not an afterthought, Trippi says, the campaign returns to the people the power taken away by television, which he calls a concentrated information source that benefits big money.

While most candidates' Web sites are basic — letting supporters volunteer, donate, get newsletters — Dean's was the first to post a frequently updated Web journal, called a blog, that lets visitors provide the campaign with valuable feedback.

"It creates a continuous stream of information," said Steven Schneider, co-founder of the research site politicalweb.info. "It creates an energy" that gives volunteers a feeling of ownership in the campaign.

Dean's use of the Internet has:

  • Helped the campaign raise $7.5 million in the April-June period, the most among Democrats. About 40 percent came from the Internet in the final week as Dean's Web site acquired a telethon flavor.

  • Spurred donations, averaging $53, over four days in late July that totaled more than half a million dollars, outdoing the $300,000 collected by Vice President Dick Cheney (news - web sites) at a $2,000-a-plate fund-raiser.

  • Brought Dean supporters together in coffee shops and bars across the country with the help of Meetup.com. What began in February as unsanctioned gatherings has morphed into monthly meetings, with Dean and his representatives attending.

  • Encouraged the campaign to dabble with wireless (news - web sites) and Internet video, alerting supporters on cell phones of upcoming television appearances and creating a TV-like site with ads and footage from major events.

    That is not to say Dean's site is always ahead. The campaign site for President Bush, though lacking in many basic features, is the lone site with a searchable database of campaign donors.

    And, there have been bumps on the digital campaign trail, no surprise given the freedom of action on the Internet.

    One is the Dean Defense Forces site, which Trippi says "will once in a while overdo it." Not connected to the campaign, the site's members flood the e-mail boxes of reporters and opinion makers perceived to have slighted Dean.

    The campaign tolerates it all. It even links to the Defense Forces, whose founder is a University of Montana student.

    Trippi is mindful of the political perils of such an open campaign. Rival operatives can covertly attend Meetups.

    Rivals are also adopting Dean's Internet tactics.

    Sen. John Kerry, for one, has since joined Dean in paying Meetup $2,500 a month to customize messages and coordinate e-mail lists. Kerry and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida have also started campaign blogs.

    Trippi professes not to worry. Only the right candidate can effectively cultivate the grass roots online, he maintains.

    Political analysts tend to agree.

    "A terrible candidate with a great Web site is a terrible candidate," Noble says.

    Michael Cornfield, research director at the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, expects many of Dean's techniques to be adopted next year in lower-profile races — and perhaps this fall in the California recall campaigns.

    There's still no telling whether the early Dean support will inspire votes in the primaries and caucuses next spring.

    Analysts say he'll still need some traditional campaigning like more television ads, and he'll need to win over traditional Democratic constituencies.

    "If he sits on his laurels and thinks, `I'm the high-tech candidate this time,' and doesn't do anything else, it doesn't get him anywhere," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "At the end of the day, the real compact between a candidate and the voter is what happens in the voting booth, not what happens at the Meetup site."
    • Dan Collins

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