January 29, 2004 10:00 AM PST

Faith in Net's force rises, falls with Dean

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Howard Dean's second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, following his lackluster performance in the Iowa caucuses, raises the obvious question: To what extent has the Internet truly transformed politics?

Dean has pointed to the Internet as a crucial part of his self-described "Greatest Grassroots Campaign in History," and, through his Web site, managed to raise more money than any other Democrat running for president in 2004.

"Only the people have the power to realize the vision upon which this country was founded," Dean said last year. "The Internet provides us with ways to bring new life to those ideals in every community."

But then came Dean's back-to-back defeats, compounded by a recent Newsweek poll that showed John Kerry commanding 30 percent of support from registered Democrats nationwide. At the time of the poll in mid-January, Dean had slipped to a mere 12 percent, tied with John Edwards and Wesley Clark, a far cry from his front-runner status in early January.

On January 28, Dean unexpectedly replaced his campaign manager Joe Trippi, who has been credited with formulating his Internet strategy.

"The best candidate on the Internet is Dean," said Alexis Rice, a fellow at the Center for the Study of American Government at Johns Hopkins University. "But does being the best candidate on the Internet mean you're going to win elections?"

Dean's early primary performance is already being judged in terms of potential lessons to be learned about the role of the Net in politics. Win or lose, political experts say, his campaign offers substantial validation of online techniques that helped funnel tens of millions of dollars in small donations into his campaign coffers--a feat that others are already seeking to duplicate.

"What Howard Dean did was tap into how useful the Internet can be to raise money and spread awareness," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, who teaches at Columbia University's journalism school. That phenomenon won't die even if Dean's campaign does, Sreenivasan said.

News.context

What's new:
Howard Dean may have the most Internet-savvy campaign of all the current presidential candidates, but so far, it's not helping his performance in the primaries.

Bottom line:
While Dean may not win the race, his success in raising money and awareness through the Internet has proven technology's strength as a tool in political campaigns.

More stories on this topic

It's not just Web logs and cash, of course. Political strategists have become fascinated with the possibilities offered by the Internet's communications mechanisms. By supplanting telephone banks and door-to-door campaigning, they realized, the Web can, in theory, be used to get out the vote.

Zephyr Teachout, Dean's Internet director, said in a recent interview that her campaign's strength is "allowing people ways to find each other and have meetings offline" though mechanisms such as Meetup.com and "Get Local," the campaign's event creation service.

After Dean's success, rivals began to adopt similar tactics. "Kerry is doing very similar things to Dean," Rice said. "He's just copied everything that Dean is doing. Kerry has meet-ups; Kerry has blogs; Kerry has a very good interactive Web site."

Don't measure the future of Internet-based campaigning only by whether Dean wins the Democratic nomination or not, Rice cautions. "Nobody had heard of Dean a year ago," she said. "The media caught on to Dean because of his use of the Internet...For that reason, candidates will look at the Dean model, especially on campaign fund raising."

Political observers added that it is simplistic to see Dean's campaign as a product of the Web alone, outside of his platform and political message.

One reason Dean attracted intense support last year was his outspoken antiwar stand, which jibed with the views of activists at Web sites such as MoveOn.org and Win Without War--collections of voters who had shunned other Democratic candidates with more nuanced positions.

"That's an important part of the story," Michael Cornfield, research director for George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet said, referring to the cadre of liberal activists. "They're not going to abandon the Internet. They're not going to give up on doing research and going to blogs and giving money. They might just give up on Dean, that's all."

Trail of online campaigns
Dean may have once been the media's tech-savvy darling, with simultaneous appearances on the covers of Newsweek and Time magazine, but the appearance of the Internet in an election year is hardly new. As long ago as 1992, former California Gov. Jerry Brown's presidential campaign used FTP (file transfer protocol) sites to distribute his policy papers.

In the 1996 presidential race, CNET News.com reported that "Web pages have become a campaign staple for many politicians, especially those who want to show that they're in touch with younger voters. Politicians covet the ability to spread their message to millions of voters unfiltered by the news media..." Bob Dole, the Republican nominee that year, even mentioned his Web site at the end of a debate with Bill Clinton. "If you really want to get involved, just tap into my home page," Dole suggested, inviting a rush of traffic that briefly swamped DoleKemp96.org.

While Jesse Ventura's election as governor of Minnesota in 1998 demonstrated the effectiveness of online activism, John McCain probably was the first presidential candidate to use the Net successfully.

After trouncing George W. Bush in New Hampshire's Republican primary in 2000, McCain raised millions of dollars through his Web site and network of grassroots supporters. Since the campaign "is not going to have the resources to match Bush," a McCain aide told Salon.com in 1999, "we're going to be pretty dependent on the Internet to get the word out."

Unless Dean wins the more prominent electoral contests Tuesday, Feb. 3, chances are he'll suffer the same fate as McCain did.

To be sure, the primaries are far from over, and Dean still claims the widest following in online circles. The Meetup.com Web site, which his campaign touts as a catalyst for in-person meetings of its supporters, lists 186,300 Dean members. By contrast, Kerry has just 32,200 and Clark 65,300. The network of Web logs created by Dean supporters, which are highlighted by the campaign's own official one, remains the broadest.

Those may prove to be necessary assets in the days leading up to the cluster of contests on Tuesday, Feb. 3, in seven far-flung states, including South Carolina, Arizona, Missouri and New Mexico. Dean is expected to have better chances of success in Arizona and New Mexico, where his newly cash-strapped campaign has focused its remaining resources after spending liberally on TV advertising in New Hampshire.

Even if Dean loses, political analysts said, his campaign has provided validation of the power of the Internet as a fund-raising tool.

"If it all ends on Tuesday, his obituary would be that there is big money, not just sudden money, to be raised by taking the Internet seriously," George Washington University's Cornfield said. "He showed the entire nation that small donations can add up."

 

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