FRAMINGHAM (01/15/2004) - Among Democrats during the fall run-up to the presidential primaries, Howard Dean won front-runner status for his fearless firebrand criticism of President Bush's handling of the Iraq war. But even if the former Vermont governor fails to seize the Democratic nomination this summer, his use of the Internet has added a new rule for political campaigns: Make sure your candidate's website drives supporters to meet each other--and to a "click to donate" button.
From April 1 to Sept. 30, Dean collected US$11 million through Internet donations, including 110,786 online donations (totaling $7.4 million) in the third quarter alone. Put another way: During that time, 50 cents of every dollar Dean collected came from people giving via his website, www.dean foramerica.com.
Those Internet donations have helped Dean lead in the fund-raising race among the nine Democratic candidates, and prompted him in November to bypass public financing of his campaign and the spending limits that go along with it. As of Sept. 30, Dean had raised $25.4 million, ahead of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's $20 million.
But it's more than just the e-donations. Dean has exploited the Internet as a two-way medium, using his website to generate volunteer involvement globally, without campaign intervention. Volunteers have signed up to host hundreds of parties on the first Wednesday of each month, for example, from Burlington, Iowa, to Budapest, Hungary, to solicit support for Dean and to allow supporters to schedule face-to-face "meet ups." It's all organized online using website software from Meetup, which links people associated by interest in topics (from goth culture to gardening). The Dean website links to Meetup's site and sends supporters to sign up for gatherings or to start a new venue.
All the major candidates have since started using Meetup to solicit supporter klatches. Even some who aren't declared candidates, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, had wishful supporters signing up venues.
Michael Cornfield, research director at the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University, says that President Bush is the campaign money champ so far--collecting $84.6 million as of Sept. 30--but it's largely through conventional fund-raising dinners. Dean's use of the Internet for campaigning could signal a major shift in how campaigns are run, similar to the change from the 19th century's party-run affairs to the media-driven contests of the past century. "We're going from the age of mass media to the age of networks," he says.
Clearly Dean's campaign has a resonant message, observers such as Cornfield note. But the fact that Dean's website encourages supporters to get personally involved plays to the strength of the Internet, says Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "Instead of the Internet being essentially a one-way communications tool, (the Dean tactic) is, 'I'm writing you, and I need your input,'" Sabato adds.
Phil Noble, founder of PoliticsOnline, which offers Internet tools for political campaigns, says Dean has changed the way politicians--and businesses--have to think about the Internet, whether or not he wins the White House: Success is "about interactivity--it's not about one-way communication," Noble says. "Most campaigns--just like most companies--haven't realized it."
Sabato calls the Dean Internet strategy "well-managed anarchy," adding that most companies haven't learned that Internet users want to interact. "The Internet is best used not for advertising, but for involvement."