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TERENCE SMITH: Howard Dean calls his presidential bid the “people-powered campaign.”
HOWARD DEAN: The power to change this country is in your hands, and boy, have you ever proved it in the last week and a half.
TERENCE SMITH: That sounds like old-fashioned populism, but the new element is the powerful Internet engine that’s behind it.
HOWARD DEAN: Holy cow!
TERENCE SMITH: At the moment, his campaign is the not-so-little engine that could.
The self-appointed political elite — pundits, the media, and insiders from both major parties — never anticipated the former Vermont governor could attract such early national attention.
But he has, largely by computer-assisted grassroots organizing and fund-raising.
Once a month, his campaign promotes what it calls “meet-ups” online. The concept is simple: The Dean campaign uses the Web site Meetup.com, which organizes groups of people with similar interests, from poodles to politics.
In fact, at the moment, popular categories, such as Bill O’Reilly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, are being overshadowed by Dean, who now has now garnered more than 67,000 supporters through the site.
WOMAN AT DEAN MEET-UP: I’m going to pass around my contact information if you want to write that down.
TERENCE SMITH: Generated by the Internet, these “smart mobs,” as they’re coming to be known, gather at a designated place. On this night, some Dean supporters meet up at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, and at a Cajun restaurant in Denver, and in 310 other cities across the country.
PERSON AT DEAN MEET-UP: Now, folks, this, this here tonight, this is what a legitimate grassroots campaign looks like.
TERENCE SMITH: After hearing from Dean organizers and watching a video from the candidate, the people at this Denver gathering, who were brought together by computer, turned back the clock on technology and put pen to paper to try to persuade Iowans to support Dean in that important first-in-the-nation caucus state.
Ben Schumacher says Internet organizing, in what has been dubbed the new “Internet primary,” can converge with old-style campaign tactics, such as letter writing and direct mail, fundraising events and TV ads.
But cyberspace, he says expands, a candidate’s appeal.
BEN SCHUMACHER: There’s a lot of disaffected people who are Internet users. I personally would have considered myself one, who… this is the only reason I would have found out about Howard Dean, and probably one of the main reasons I’m out here today.
WOMAN AT MEET-UP DEAN RALLY: You’ve all got e-mail lists. We need to spread the word and send it to all of your friends.
TERENCE SMITH: The power of computer organizing is now even part of the candidate’s lexicon on the stump.
HOWARD DEAN: What I would like meet-up to do…
TERENCE SMITH: Dean says the Internet builds cohesion.
HOWARD DEAN: It’s a way of putting the community back together again that was taken away by television, where people sat passively at home, being entertained by people who spoke at them but not with them. And we can speak with people.
TERENCE SMITH: Independent of the campaign, there are 89 Dean Web sites and 326 online discussion groups on Yahoo, including two for Spanish speakers. In addition, the campaign itself is communicating directly with people through interactive weblogs, or so-called “blogs.”
HOWARD DEAN: (audio recording) I’m amazed by the incredible outpouring of support we’ve seen on the Internet today.
TERENCE SMITH: This blog entry is an audio recording of Dean thanking supporters for their contributions during the last day of the second fundraising quarter. Across the Democratic Party spectrum, political organizers at Moveon.org are using the Internet to try to mobilize Americans to get involved.
In June, members of this organization of 1.4 million liberal activists held the country’s first online primary to pick a Democrat to challenge President Bush.
And Dean, who won 44 percent of the 318,000 votes cast, was able to then raise more than $2 million in the final eight days of June.
That brought his total earnings to $7.5 million in the second quarter of the year, more than half of which came from direct contributions over the Internet. He raised more than any Democrat in this most recent quarter, and a record amount in cyberspace for a non-election year. Some of the Democratic contenders criticized the candidate poll, and none attracted the needed 50 percent of the vote to get the group’s endorsement.
ZACH EXLEY, Moveon.org: Hey, how’s it going?
TERENCE SMITH: Zach Exley of Moveon.org says the group may promote more polls in the coming months in an effort to mobilize field workers and help Democratic candidates raise small donor money before the early primary contests next year.
ZACH EXLEY: We’re doing the opposite of winnowing the field. I think that the winnowing of the field is what happens in the money game and in the pundit game. What we’re trying to do is let the people speak on… let a very broad and base of voters speak about who they think is electable.
MAX FOSE, Republican Internet Strategist: Howard Dean has definitely become the Internet candidate of the 2004 presidential election cycle.
TERENCE SMITH: Republican Max Fose was the Internet manager and treasurer for the McCain 2000 campaign. He advises Republican candidates around the country.
Fose created the Web site that signed up and organized over 142,000 volunteers nationwide, and raised $6.4 million online for McCain. He says Howard Dean is harnessing the power of the Web.
MAX FOSE: If Howard Dean was able to win this nomination right now for the Democratic nominee, you could say Howard Dean, did he win because of the Internet? Well, no, because the candidate wins. But he could not have won without the Internet.
TERENCE SMITH: Other Democratic competitors, with far greater numbers in the polls, are starting to make more of a push for online fundraising and organizing.
For example, on the campaign site of Congressman Dick Gephardt, there is an appeal to Spanish-speaking voters. Senator Joe Lieberman’s site utilizes video, including a diary from the campaign which the candidate narrates.
SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN: (audio recording) So thanks for tuning in.
TERENCE SMITH: Senator John Kerry’s features “virtual precincts,” where supporters can trade information and organize their friends to vote for Kerry, while Senator John Edwards features his schedule, so people can see where he’s going and what he’s doing; Senator Bob Graham does the same.
SPOKESMAN, at Meet-Up: Three, two, one… happy draft!
TERENCE SMITH: And at this computer-organized meet-up, one of 36 across the country the same night, Internet-savvy attendees came to try to rally behind a candidate who is not even in the race, General Wesley Clark, a former NATO commander. People like Georgia Sullivan, a private school fund-raiser, say they were attracted to the campaign on the computer, and then sought out more information by joining the public meetings.
John Hlinko, DraftWesleyClark.com co-founder, says that kind of story is duplicated over and over.
JOHN HLINKO, DraftWesleyClark.com: The Internet is the factor. It’s unbelievable. I mean, we started the Web site DraftWesleyClark.com just a little over two months ago, and what it’s enabled us to do is to channel support from all over the nation and funnel it in the right direction, in a direction that can actually make this a movement rather than just a random series of e-mails.
TERENCE SMITH: But some 25 percent of Americans still are not connected to the Internet, the so-called digital divide.
Governor Dean spoke to that limitation at a recent Rainbow/PUSH Coalition presidential forum.
HOWARD DEAN: We have the most advanced Internet campaign in the country. We have 34,000 volunteers all over the country because of the Internet. The next biggest campaign has 1,300.
We have a disproportionate number of white middle-class kids, because the Internet does not reach enough people in the Latino and the African American community.
TERENCE SMITH: And beyond reaching, mobilizing, and fundraising in the primaries is the broader question: How would any of the Democratic candidates fare in an electronically charged match-up with President Bush?
MAX FOSE: What you’re going to see with President Bush’s campaign is the ability to build the largest e-mail list in political history, and take what the RNC has done for the last four years, and build an e-mail list of millions of people, and take that to the next level where he’ll probably have 20 million people on an e-mail list by the time the campaign ends.
George Bush has the ability to raise $20 million to $30 million online this year by going out and stumping and saying, “you know, if you support my message, if you support what I’ve done for the past three and a half years, go online and give me $25.”
I don’t think they’ve started using the bully pulpit to its fullest.
TERENCE SMITH: In the future, expect to see more candidates text messaging — sending messages to voters’ cell phones — transmitting video messages online, and building even more extensive e-mail lists by cross-referencing with commercial files.
It’s the brave new world of campaign technology and organizing. But at this early point in the presidential race, no one can predict with any certainty what the net effect will be on the outcome.