Multiplying Control

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2003-12-01 Print this article Print

You may think Howard Dean is a flash in the pan, in a quixotic quest for the presidency. Better pay attention, though. How his campaign has used blogs, meeting services and other tools of the Web has laid bare the essential power of the Internet to make o

Multiplying Control

Mr. President, I'm a blogger. I know blogs. Bloggers are friends of mine. And your site, sir, is not a blog.

Posted by Joe Rospars at 02:18 a.m., Oct. 7, 2003

Making these tools widely available via the Internet, rather than husbanding them at campaign headquarters, means Dean's marketers give up a fair amount of control of messages made on behalf of their candidate.

Volunteers create their own weblogs, and say what they will. None have to submit their words to editors or campaign staffers for approval before posting. The same goes for staffers like Rospars, who writes for Blog for America. "Nobody reads my stuff before it goes. I just hit publish," says Rospars, 22, who was teaching English in Stockholm before joining the campaign last spring. "The blog is about humanizing [the] campaign—not just Dean but the staff and supporters."

Teachout says this spreads "ownership of the campaign.''

"You have to look at the cost versus benefit" of letting individuals act quasi-independently, says Teachout, who studied game theory while working toward her law degree at Duke. In effect, the benefit of letting supporters say whatever is on their minds outweighs the risk of them making statements that somehow undermine the campaign. It's a lesson also being learned by large corporations such as software giant Microsoft.

One strength of the Dean approach is that it draws new people into the political process. Only 51% of voters turned out in the 2000 presidential election, which was decided by a handful of votes. If Dean can energize some portion of the 49% who didn't vote last time, his chances are improved.

"My sense is that about 40% of the people at Meetups are new to the process, and that it's about the same for contributors," says Michael Silberman, who less than a year after graduating from Vermont's Middlebury College is in charge of Dean's Meetup effort.

Online donations accounted for about half of the $14.8 million Dean raised in the third quarter. That seems small next to the $200 million expected to flow into the Bush war chest. But Dean looks at it this way: All he needs to do is convince 2 million individuals to give $100 each and he's on a par with his much-more-moneyed Republican opponent.

As of early November, there have been 200,000 donors to Dean. Only 1,747 have given the maximum contribution of $2,000. The average contribution per donor at that point was $77, with about 25% of donors age 30 or younger.

And it all adds up. When Vice President Dick Cheney held a $2,000-per-plate fundraiser in August, Dean put out a call on the blog to top the GOP effort. Cheney brought in $250,000. Dean got more than $500,000 in four days, with donations that averaged $53.

But Dean's Net effort is about getting individuals to give time, not just money. Trippi and Teachout want others to tell the Dean story, not themselves.

"The blog itself is not about getting votes, it's about activating people to get votes," says Rospars. "We are now seeing Web givers sending checks and phone pledges. If you take the trouble to do those things, why wouldn't you also go vote?''

Teachout believes that coordinated volunteer action is the key to the campaign. More than 37,000 people have already pledged at the Dean site to attend their local primary or caucus. More than 1,870 volunteers have signed up to travel to New Hampshire or Iowa, to help boost the first official results of the 2004 campaign.

The determined use of Internet tools alone won't get the job done. Even after 10 years of growth, the Internet is used by just 59% of American adults, according to the Pew Internet Project, a research organization that has been tracking online usage since 2000.

But online organizing may help bridge the so-called digital divide. About one-third to one-half of Meetup attendees don't hear about the events online, coming instead after seeing a poster, article, or item in a community calendar, or being invited by a friend. "From organizing online, we create pods of people who can organize offline," says Silberman.

Other hopefuls for the White House are trying to catch up.

Among the leading Democratic contenders, only Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt don't have a weblog.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, have started writing frequent, first-person dispatches at the Edwards campaign weblog. In addition to his own blog, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is running campaign ads on a handful of popular political weblogs. Gen. Wesley Clark, who enjoyed significant support among bloggers as he contemplated entering the race, hired veteran blogger Cameron Barrett and in early November launched a slick new set of blogging and community tools dubbed the Clark Community Network. Excluding Dean, the retired general has more Meetup names registered than the other Democratic contenders combined—but still less than one-third of the Dean campaign's 148,000 names.

The Bush/Cheney campaign has a tepid blog that doesn't even allow reader comments; in mid-November, supporters of the President held a self-organized Meetup of their own. The incumbent's team includes what Teachout called "risk-averse politicians.''

But the risk in the Marketing of the President 2004 is not in using the Internet. The risk now is not using it effectively.

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.

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