Former presidential candidate Howard Dean is the front runner to succeed Terry McAuliffe as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The Center for Public Integrity profiled Dean in our
In the closing days of the second fiscal quarter of fundraising in 2003, the Dean campaign announced that it would raise at least $7.5 million in the reporting period, doubling the amount Dean had raised in the first quarter. It was a stunning feat, financially. Dean had collected more cash than every other Democrat, including well-known figures like Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who’d been Vice President Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, and former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt. Dean raised at least $1.5 million more than Senator Kerry, his nearest rival.
Suddenly, improbably, Howard Dean — who walked away from sure re-election as governor of Vermont to launch what many observers assumed, given his low presidential polling numbers in his home state, a quixotic campaign for president-challenged for title of Democratic front-runner. And his success may very well have marked a watershed moment in the use of the Internet in elective politics.
The Gallup Poll found in 2002 that 15 percent of Americans go online everyday for news (22 percent listen to talk radio). A study by the commercial ratings service Arbitron found that three-fourths of Americans have access to the Internet, and nearly two-thirds can surf the Web at home.
For a candidate as low-tech as Dean (he reportedly does not carry a laptop computer or email-pager device), he has assembled a remarkably tech-savvy campaign that was able to close the gap between retail politics and the Internet. There was the Howard Dean Internet Web site. There was the Dean “blog,” or Web-log, a sort of running narrative from the campaign trail, updated daily by the candidate and his staff. The “Blog for America,” as it’s called, links to flattering news accounts, instructs other Web site operators on how to link to the Dean Web, and toots its own horn, on occasion: “Okay, so it’s not quite the same as the news this morning that Dean is now leading in California. But here it is: Blog for America is now ranked number 19 of the Top 100 Weblogs, according to the Daypop score.” Daypop, incidentally, measures “the probability that a blog reader randomly hopping from blog to blog will hit that Weblog.”
There’s Howard Dean TV for the real enthusiast, which, using streaming video software, delivers coverage of Dean’s appearances and campaign commercials directly to visitors to the Dean Web site 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The campaign also mounted an online “adopting Iowans” program aimed at making thousands of backers across the country a force in Iowa’s leadoff precinct caucuses. Dean posted a video on his campaign’s Web site asking backers to use regularly scheduled monthly campaign gatherings to each write two letters to Iowans urging them to consider Dean’s bid for the nomination. “It’s a chance to get everybody else in the country who is supporting us involved in Iowa,” campaign manager Joe Trippi said of the strategy.
The Internet strategy paid off in the second fiscal quarter of 2003. Tens of thousands of new supporters joined online at Meetup.com, a free World Wide Web site that facilitates group meetings on just about any subject, anywhere. They used computers and modems to arrange rallies drawing dozens or even hundreds. And perhaps most importantly, of the $7.5 million Dean raised, at least $3 million poured in from Internet donors who logged on to Dean’s Web site or the Web sites of Dean’s supporters.
Dean’s online prowess is a function of his campaign message, which dovetails nicely with the priorities of an online activist site, MoveOn.org, whose “Internet primary” Dean won handily. A pair of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, launched MoveOn.org in 1998 to lobby against the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. The message to Congress was to “Censure and move on,” and the site collected online signatures to add heft to its petition. The couple expanded MoveOn.org into a successful advocacy PAC that, among other things, opposed President Bush’s war with Iraq. It reportedly added some 100,000 activists to its ranks in the spring of 2003, organized in opposition to issues such as the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to relax ownership rules on media companies, a ruling that is widely believed to lead to further concentration of the media.
MoveOn.org has raised huge sums of money over the Internet for various causes and candidates, without the conventional costs of running a political organization. In 2000, the group raised $3.2 million for candidates; in 2002, it raised $4.1 million. The group is credited with using the Internet to organize peace activists during some of the largest anti-war demonstrations in the United States, France, Germany and Russia in the months prior to the beginning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
On its Web site, MoveOn.org solicits donations to run issues ads, the political commercials that can attack a candidate, but must stop short of specifically encouraging citizens to vote for a particular candidate. The group funded a provocative, 30-second anti-nuclear commercial that mimicked the so-called “Daisy” ad aired during the 1964 presidential race. The original ad depicted a 6-year-old girl plucking petals from a daisy, along with a missile launch countdown, then a nuclear mushroom cloud. The 2003 version, which ran in January, showed the same images, with added scenes of burning oil wells, tanks, wounded soldiers, and street protests. It closed with a mushroom cloud and the warning: “War with Iraq. Maybe it will end quickly. Maybe not. Maybe it will spread. Maybe extremists will take over countries with nuclear weapons. Maybe the unthinkable.”
Though the ad’s dire warning of extremists getting an Iraqi nuclear bomb as a result of U.S. military action proved as chimerical as the forged intelligence documents claiming Saddam Hussein sought uranium in Niger, MoveOn.org was back at it again in July 2003. The group solicited contributions to run an ad, titled “Misleader,” that took the Bush administration to task over the intelligence assessments it used, and those it ignored, in making the case for war. “We’re launching a series of newspaper ads around the country that call on Members of Congress who haven’t pledged to support a commission to place truth over politics,” the solicitation ran. “We’ll need to raise about $225,000 to make a real impact. We can do that if we all contribute-$5 or $500.” The group provided a handy link allowing donors to view the ads.
Perhaps the group’s most memorable political stunt was hyping an Internet poll as an “online primary.” The organization’s anti-war, anti-Bush message was tailor made for Dean, who was among the most vocal of the Democratic candidates opposing war in Iraq. So perhaps it is not surprising that when the results of the “MoveOn.org PAC primary” were announced, Dean was the runaway winner, with 44 percent. Dennis Kucinich, a House member from Ohio and another anti-war candidate, was runner-up with 24 percent of the vote.
By contrast, a scientific, national poll conducted by Quinnipiac University of Democratic voters over six days starting July 17 had Dean coming in fourth, trailing rivals Joe Lieberman, Richard Gephardt and John Kerry, with Kucinich the choice of a mere two percent of those polls. Internet polls are inaccurate measures, since the sample isn’t scientifically sampled. Those who regularly visit a site with a particular viewpoint will be more likely to share that view than the public at large, and choose their candidate accordingly.
Nevertheless, MoveOn.org’s Internet poll drew a great deal of media coverage for Dean, adding to his momentum. The group noted that the 317,000 votes cast in the digital poll were more than the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary combined. Some of Dean’s opponents complained that MoveOn.org dispatched one of its top staffers to Dean headquarters in the weeks prior to its primary, but that information was lost in the headlines that Dean had won the group’s poll. The media attention helped, but was not as important as the money that poured in from the crowd that surfed their Internet Web sites.
But Dean didn’t just take the money of the Internet sector. He took their advice and their consulting services. His campaign paid $8,500 for Web-related services to Meetup Inc. in May and June 2003. He also paid MoveOn.org more than $2,700 for Web consulting at the end of June, just three days after the group announced that Dean had won its Internet poll. Of course, that’s a drop in the bucket for a group that raised $10.6 million as recently as 2000. A MoveOn.org employee took a leave of absence to work on Dean’s Web site around the time of the primary, according to press accounts.
The Internet did for Dean almost overnight what a year on the stump could not: make him a serious contender. With all the speed of the online “instant messages” that keep the high-tech world in touch, Dean had money and an apparent groundswell of support. And he was willing to plug the Web site whose Internet poll brought him so much attention. In his June 23, 2003, “announcement,” Dean mentioned it by name. “Like MoveOn.org we seek to build a community of millions and strengthen the voice of the people,” he said.
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