Introduction | Informative Nonpartisan Websites | Information through e-mail | Campaign Websites | Political Interaction
A 2004 Harvard Kennedy School of Government report noted that, at least early on, ďthe strongest voice to emerge from the blogosphere came from the right end of the political spectrum.Ē This is a reflection of the digital divide discussed elsewhere on this site. In this particular case conservative Republicans, who tend to be wealthier, got on the Web sooner than other demographics. By the 2000 election 36% of people online were registered Republicans while 28% were registered Democrats.
However, over time the tone of political discourse on the Net has become markedly more liberal. Heavy Web users tend to be progressives with a bent towards decentralization (perhaps a reflection of the Internetís inherent structure). This is not to say that conservatives have disappeared from the Web. On the contrary, they are quite alive and well. However, the decentralized nature of the Internet and the ideology of its most vocal users dovetails nicely with insurgent political campaigns. In particular this was seen during Howard Deanís campaign for the Democratic Presidential ticket.
Dean was the not the first politician to exploit the Internet. In 1998 two thirds of the money for Jesse Venturaís successful Minnesota gubernatorial campaign came from online contributions. In 2000 John McCainís campaign raised $6.8 million in the aftermath of his victory in the Republican New Hampshire primary. In all, McCain managed to consistently reach about 40,000 supporters online. At its height the Dean campaign had about 190,000 supporters online. However, more than the numbers, the distinguishing characteristic of the Dean organization was its decentralized nature.
The Dean campaign tapped into a website called MeetUp.com which organized gatherings of likeminded people. At first the Dean campaign attempted to coordinate the meetings, which became very cumbersome as the number of volunteers skyrocketed. Eventually the operation was decentralized and each group of volunteers managed themselves. There were even competing groups within an area, though they tended to merge given enough time. Once empowered these groups autonomously conducted everything from community service (Deancorps) to spontaneous fundraise. At one point early in the campaign an email suggestion by one participant to the rest of the list result in over $400,000 in donations over the span of a few days.
Yet autonomous is not quite the right word. Thanks to the Internet and MeetUp each group was highly connected to all of the other groups in an unprecedented way. This level of connectivity reinforced the sense of community and solidarity among the participants. Ultimately this is what distinguishes the Dean campaign from its predecessors and emulators.
In addition, the early adopters (about 400) were very politically active and, thanks to their autonomy, acted as 400 independent campaign managers. While this would cause problems later, for a campaign whose support was within the margin of error, this was an invaluable asset. Growth afterwards would occur exponentially, so Deanís early start and the persistence of his strong, counter establishment message enabled him to grow his lead once established.
The sense of insurgency plays very nicely into this. After the media caught wind of the size of Deanís spontaneously organized meetings other candidates established their own accounts on MeetUp. At the height of the campaign John Kerry had 80,000 users signed up while Dean still had 165,000, two months after he had withdrawn. Bush meetings were cancelled when no one showed up. Dean inspired thousands to show up at appearances 7 months before the primaries began, which was unheard of in any political circle.
Conspicuously absent in this discussion has been Deanís fundraising prowess. Dean shattered Democratic fundraising efforts and proved that it was possible to generate a flood of small ($5-$100) donations could generate just as much money as traditional, $2,000-a-plate fundraisers. However, what is more important is that Dean convinced people to donate those small amounts. A substantial portion came via snail mail, so to simply call it an online phenomenon is to miss the point. It was the sense of community and sacrifice generated by the Dean campaign that inspired the small scale donations.
In this context the Internet was important because it made that community possible. However, the impact truly was due to the fact that a community was created; being online was only intrinsic insofar as it enabled the community.
The McCain campaign in 2000 raised millions of dollars online, but Dean managed to raise that much in a matter of weeks. It was not simply the use of the Internet, it was the effective use to foster a sense of interaction that is lacking in traditional, centralized, top-down campaigns. Beyond disseminating non-partisan information, this creation of community is potentially the largest impact that the Internet can have on politics.
The recreation of wide-scale political camaraderie, ultimately, is the legacy of the Dean campaign. The most tangible sign of this was fundraising, but in the end it is simply a manifestation of a deeper phenomenon. The Dean campaign not only reached previously politically apathetic voters, it encouraged them to actually do something.
Can a non-insurgent campaign mobilize a large Web community like Dean did? Can a vibrant online community crystallize over less controversial issues? Can online fundraising effectively replace 527s? These and other questions can only be answered with time.