The former Vermont governor and self-described underdog has used the Internet to complement traditional fund-raising techniques, collecting contributions through his Web site and e-mail at little cost to his campaign.
Dean hit the $1 million mark in Internet fund raising last week, becoming the first 2004 presidential hopeful to announce he has done so. Dean supporters also are using the Internet to organize volunteers across the country.
Campaign manager Joe Trippi said the Internet has matured to the point where people are comfortable using it to donate.
"You had to have years and years of people, millions of Americans who bought a book from Amazon or used eBay," Trippi said. "That had to happen sans any presidential campaign."
Dean's rivals are also raising money over the Internet, and many, including President Bush and Democrats John Kerry, John Edwards and Dick Gephardt, also are using it to reach out to volunteers.
Bush's Web site went up Friday within hours of his campaign's announcement that he would seek re-election. Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, raised more than $450,000 online by the end of March, the most recent figures his campaign has released.
Among other leaders in the first-quarter Democratic money chase, the Edwards campaign said the North Carolina senator was under $1 million in Internet fund raising. The Gephardt campaign declined to release the Missouri congressman's online total.
Though many of the 2004 hopefuls have the potential to raise millions over the Internet in coming months, none has highlighted their Internet campaigning to the extent Dean has. The one-time governor, like other relatively unknown candidates before him, had little choice, said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. In 2000, Republican John McCain raised $1 million over the Internet in 48 hours.
"They can't afford high-priced consultants. They can't afford direct mail, which eats up sometimes 80 percent of what it raises," Sabato said. "So they have to depend on person-to-person fund raising, and that's the Internet. There's almost no overhead with Internet fund raising."
Dean raised far less overall in the early money chase than his rivals from Congress in the nine-way Democratic race. From January through March, the most recent figures available, Edwards raised $7.4 million, Kerry $7 million, Gephardt $3.5 million, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman $3 million and Dean $2.6 million.
The Federal Election Commission doesn't require candidates to note whether contributions come through the Internet, mail or in person; the Dean campaign said it uses a service to track its Internet contributions.
Trippi said the campaign tends to take in smaller dollar amounts over the Internet than it does through other fund-raising methods such as direct mail and receptions. He estimates its average Internet donation is under $100, compared to an overall average donation of about $168.
Besides fund raising, the Internet is also helping the candidates organize volunteers.
Currently there are roughly 25,000 people signed up as Dean supporters through a site called meetup.com — a big payoff for the campaign's investment of a few thousand dollars in the site. They are spread among 250 chapters nationwide that meet once a month to plan campaigning and fund-raising activities for Dean.
Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan said he had no reason to doubt the Dean campaign's statements about its Internet grass-roots activity.
"We'll all see in the long run what if any difference it makes in terms of votes," Jordan said. "We're using our Web site fully for fund raising, for message dissemination, for organizing."
There were about 225 meetup.com meetings this month, and the campaign sent an official Dean representative to about 180, including every meeting in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. While there, the Dean representative asked for 10 minutes to tell volunteers how they can best help, including spending a week in Iowa or New Hampshire or holding house parties to raise money.
Trippi concedes that unleashing all those volunteers isn't without risk; it's impossible to be sure all will be "on message" with the campaign.
"It's an almost military structure at most campaigns," he said. "All the orders come from on high and it's very regimented and you know exactly how many supporters you have in one state ... Most campaigns view the Net as trying to impose military structure on chaos."
By Sharon Theimer