Caught in the Net: online fundraising changes politics

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(Host) 2004 might be the year that voters use the Internet like never before to help elect a president. Already, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean has used his Web site to raise millions from small donors.

This week, as part of a nationwide public radio collaboration on democracy, VPR’s John Dillon takes a close look at the role of the Internet in the democratic process.

(Dillon) At Howard Dean’s headquarters in South Burlington, Nicco Melle types an e-mail that he hopes will raise millions of dollars.

(Melle) “We’ve been running this baseball bat and this guy pointing toward the bleachers on the Web site for the last 10 days or so. ‘Hit a grand slam for Dean. Click here to contribute.’ That’s it. Forward this message to family and friends.”

(Dillon) Melle is the campaign’s 26-year-old webmaster. He looks a little harried as it gets closer to a crucial fundraising deadline.

(Melle) “And I’m hoping this particular e-mail will just really surge the whole thing and we can make $750,000 today, which would be pretty cool.”

(Dillon) Melle’s estimate turns out to be low. The campaign collects $800,000 for the day and $7.6 million by the end of the second quarter.

No candidate has raised so much, so fast and from so many people using the Internet. By mid-summer, Dean’s online onslaught vaults him to the top of the crowded Democratic field. By the end of September, the totals go much higher. More than 150,000 people donated to Dean online, with average contributions of less than $100.

(Carol Darr) “The fact that now, because of the Internet, you can fuel a serious presidential campaign on the strength of small contributions changes absolutely everything.”

(Dillon) Carol Darr directs the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University. Darr is convinced that big money donors – those who give the federal maximum of $2,000 – usually expect something in return. It could be changes in tax policy, for example, that favor their upper income bracket. She points out that 95% of those who contributed the maximum had incomes of over $100,000.

(Darr) “Before big money had to say grace over you, big money had to give you their blessing. Otherwise as a candidate, there was no way to get enough money to run a serious race. And the Internet has changed that.”

(Dillon) Darr says Dean’s ability to harness the Internet compares to Franklin Roosevelt’s revolutionary use of radio to reach voters, or John F. Kennedy’s use of television in the 1960 campaign. According to Darr, the Internet favors charismatic outspoken mavericks who have a clear message.

(Darr) “The ones it’s benefited lately have been Jesse Ventura, John McCain, Howard Dean and now Wesley Clark. But there’s no reason to think that had there been an Internet say, in 1976, that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have been an Internet candidate. He has all the characteristics of someone who at the time was leading an insurgent movement, was very charismatic and had a lot of support in the grassroots of America.”

(Sound of a Meetup in Montpelier)
(Greg Hysman, organizer) “I’d like to welcome everyone to the August edition of the Howard Dean for President Meetup. My name is Greg Hysman, I’m the Washington County chair.”

(Dillon) Dean’s online campaign has not just delivered cash and contributors. It’s brought tens of thousands of volunteers. They meet the first Wednesday of every month, like this gathering in a Montpelier church basement. is a free Web service that allows people with common interests – it could be poodles, baseball cards or politics – to schedule a time and place to gather. The Meetup service turned out to be a perfect match for Dean’s Web-savvy volunteers. More than 120,000 now meet each month at 500 sites around the country.

And although they all got here via the Internet, at this Meetup in Montpelier they use an old-fashioned form of communication to reach potential voters in critical early primary states.

(Hysman) “We do have an action activity for tonight. Just like in Iowa, we’re writing letters but this time to our counterparts in New Hampshire.”

(Dillon) Before they put pen to paper to describe Howard Dean’s record as Vermont governor, the Meetup volunteers chat about how the Internet has changed politics. Tom Luce is from the nearby town of Barre. He says he now has 1,000 people on his e-mail list.

(Luce) “And it’s real. It’s not just cyberspace. I mean the people I’ve organized are people that have never been organized before. And this is a way they can get involved. They can’t run to meetings, they can’t get on the phone as much. But they can always get on e-mail. And they communicate that way.”

(Dillon) Out in the field, the campaign is very loosely organized. It’s a bottom-up approach that gives a lot of authority to volunteers.

Back at Howard Dean’s headquarters, the web team posts a running total of another, online fund drive.

(Matt Gross) “Okay, it’s up on the blog, let’s see what people have to say about it. That’s $18,000 in the last hour. That’s pretty good.”

(Dillon) Matt Gross communicates with the loose network of Dean supporters through a web log, or blog. He disagrees with critics who compare Dean to all the high flying Internet companies that crashed and burned several years ago.

(Gross) “With the dot-coms, they thought the Internet was the thing. And really it’s the ability that the Internet gives people to do the things that they’re interested in. That is what makes the Internet powerful. And what the Internet can do for democracy and I think is doing in this election, it gives people who are interested the ability to do so.”

(Dillon) And they do participate. The dozens of Dean blogs and Web sites are a giant feedback loop for the campaign. The bloggers also don’t hold back their criticism. After the Democratic debate in Albuquerque, the online fans pleaded with the campaign to coach Dean before his next appearance.

Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi, is a veteran of six presidential contests and early on saw the potential of the Internet. He sees the Net as an antidote to campaigns that became increasingly dominated by TV advertising. Trippi, dark-haired and intense, isn’t modest about what he thinks the campaign has accomplished. It all began for Howard Dean, he says, with that fundraising surge in June.

(Trippi) “The Kennedy-Nixon debate should have been a big signal to a lot of people that television was about to radically change our politics. Eight days in June, I think, will be seen later on sometime in the future as the day that people should have realized that the Internet was really going to radically change America’s politics. The difference is, the first revolution ended up taking people out of the process. This one is putting people back in.”

(Dillon) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Colchester, Vermont.

Related link:
Whose democracy is it? – a public radio collaboration.

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