Howard Dean's Internet Love-In

vermont governor howard dean democrat presidential candidate AP

Six months ago, almost no one had heard of Meetup.com, but these days the Web site is considered a driving force behind former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's insurgent Democratic presidential campaign.

Meetup.com organizes groups whose interests range from witches to the politics of prostate cancer. The groups organize gatherings nationwide (coffee shops and bars are popular venues) as a way to introduce themselves, or "meetup." The members of the Dean group, by far the largest on the site, numbered more than 31,000 as of Wednesday morning, and their ranks keep growing.

The Dean group is holding a "National Meetup" on Wednesday night. Supporters will gather at places like Tortilla Sam's in Worcester, Mass., and Joseph-Beth's Bookstore in Lexington, Ky. – as well as other spots in New York, Boston, Washington and San Francisco – to plot strategy, talk about what they see in Dean and, of course, be cornered by the more zealous Dean backers to volunteer their time and money to the campaign.

The Meetup phenomenon has not been lost on the Dean campaign, which sees the 31,000 members as the backbone of their surprising early success.

"The largest component spreading the word – both in money and organization – are the Meetup folks," says Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager. "Meetup has been incredible. Just incredible."

The Dean campaign is so pro-Meetup, in fact, that among the 17 references to the group on the Dean for America home page, there is a "Meetup host kit," available for downloading, which explains how self-appointed organizers can further help the campaign.

The real question, however, is how the campaign can exploit the fact that 31,000 people scattered across the country joined the Dean Meetup group, all voluntarily and pro-actively. Harnessed properly, that many activists could have a major impact on a presidential race, but whether or not Dean's online support will translate to actual votes remains to be seen.

Trippi says the Meetuppies have provided the campaign with ready-made, cost-free, on-the-ground organizations in key states that would otherwise be ignored so early in the nomination process.

In Washington State, for example, Trippi says that 1200 people attended a Dean rally last week, without any advance work or staffers in-state. Trippi attributes the large turnout to Meetup members who organized their friends. These self-organizers, the campaign hopes, will help rally potential voters for the Feb. 7, 2004 caucuses.

"In this new calendar, where that whole first 15-state process happens in a matter of weeks, we couldn't do it without the Internet and without something like Meetup," Trippi said. "It would cost millions of dollars in campaign field staff to do what you need to do this time. In the past, you moved key staff like chess pieces, but that cannot happen this time. There's not enough time or money."

In other states like Iowa and New Hampshire where Dean has offices, Trippi says the Meetup members are becoming integrated with the official campaign as volunteers. In other states where Dean eventually plans to send staffers, the Meetup groups will provide a built-in organizational base that will make the campaign's job easier.

"As we put in state directors, then there is more of a foundation on the ground for people to plug into the 'official' campaign,'" he said. "But, right now, the 'official campaign' in a lot of states is the 'unofficial campaign' that just continues."

Trippi also said the campaign will ask the Meetup members to help get Dean on the ballot in all 50 states, a task that can quickly become a logistical nightmare for a presidential campaign without a huge national staff.

"They are going to be crucial in that endeavor," he said. "That is what killed (Gary) Hart in1984 was the lack of an organizational structure to get on ballot in Illinois and New York."

Another example of the potency of the Meetup group was the more than 10,000 e-mails the Dean campaign received condemning anti-Dean remarks last month by leaders of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Trippi said the e-mails, which were sent along to the DLC, came mainly from Meetup members.

The Dean Meetup group is already having an impact where it really matters – fund-raising. So far, the Meetuppies have contributed almost $400,000 to the campaign. Over $1.25 million has been raised online, says Trippi.

The "Meetup Challenge" was started in March by a New York member who asked others to send in checks for $10.01. (The extra penny made it easy for the donations from Meetuppies to be tracked.) Trippi says they've received thousands of contributions as a result.

"That kind of response and self-organizing … has been a big, big push for this campaign," Trippi says.

There's only one thing making Joe Trippi nervous about Dean's position as the top-ranked Meetup personality: Elvis. As of Wednesday, 4502 people had signed up for the Elvis Presley Fans Worldwide group – and Trippi is getting worried.

"They are moving really fast, and it's scaring the hell out of me," he said.

By Douglas Kiker

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