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A Wide Web of Votes

June 30, 2003

Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean is barely registering 6% support in the latest national Gallup poll, but the former Vermont governor's voracious campaigning on the Internet isn't being easily dismissed.

With more than 39,000 Dean volunteers signed up on the Internet's meetup.com, he is getting his support faster and cheaper than any other candidate. Meetup.com allows users to organize local meetings on anything of common interest, and Dean's supporters have made broad use of the Web site.

Other candidates are starting to take notice. All eyes last week were on the "virtual primary" being conducted by the liberal Internet-based political group MoveOn.org.

More than 317,000 online ballots were cast, exceeding the total number of Democratic voters in the 2000 Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. Although no candidate garnered the 50% of the vote needed to win this primary outright, energized voters pledged to donate $1.75 million to Democratic candidates.

The Internet has been a haven for insurgents before, a place where Jesse Ventura organized his volunteers in his successful third-party bid for governor of Minnesota and where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) raised cash in his maverick 2000 presidential bid. But now, the Internet has begun to assert itself as a major player in American politics. Today, every mainstream candidate has a Web site and discussion groups, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

"Just as the Internet has fostered the ability [of] citizens to organize and mobilize against repressive governmental regimes -- Indonesia and others -- so too is it ideal for political mobilizing," says Jeffrey Cole, director of the UCLA Center for Communication Policy. This assessment does not mean that costly mailings and broadcast advertising will fade from politics. But if a mode as cheap and swift as the Internet can give a candidate a point or two at the ballot box, it can tip the result.

Expect the emergence and strengthening of new political interest groups. Since the 1980s, the religious right, for instance, has been able to effectively organize around TV and radio talk shows like Pat Robertson's and Rush Limbaugh's. The Internet is doing something similar for younger, tech-oriented people, as Dean's campaign and the influence of MoveOn.org attest. This is not a revolutionary development. Grass-roots insurgency has a long history.

In an age where many are jaded about politicians, the ability to organize activist groups can only help revive political participation. This election's development of Internet campaigning will surely be a model for future campaigns. Candidates who don't absorb its lessons may soon regret it.

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