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PRESIDENTIAL RACE

New Way to Win, or Cyber-Hype?

October 26, 2003|Michael Clough | Michael Clough worked on foreign-policy issues in two Democratic presidential campaigns. He is currently studying Internet law at the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H.

NASHUA, N.H. — Although the first caucus vote is three months away, the 2004 presidential campaign is already being hailed by some as the presidential Internet campaign. No question, the Internet has had a dramatic effect on the "invisible" primary season, the pre-voting phase of the nominating process during which political pundits, party leaders and donors decide which aspirants have what it takes to win in November. It's become a political truism that it helped launch Howard Dean's presidential candidacy, and the Internet was at least partly responsible for Wesley K. Clark's entry into the race.

According to former Ambassador George Bruno, who played a leading role in Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign in New Hampshire and who is helping Clark, grass-roots Internet efforts to draft Clark gave his candidacy a credibility that it otherwise would not have enjoyed. The Dean precedent also encouraged the former general to seek the Democratic nomination by suggesting how he might overcome the handicap of entering the campaign late and without much money or organization.

Yet, there are strong reasons to believe that the Internet's reputed transformative effects on electioneering may be overhyped.

Within days of Clark's announcement, his campaign had a state-of-the-art Internet operation, headed by draft-Clark leader John Hlinko, up and running in Little Rock, Ark. A Clark campaign "blog," managed by longtime blogger Cameron Barrett, soon followed.

Then, on Tuesday, after deciding not to compete in Iowa, Clark was in Nashua, N.H., engaging in old-fashioned retail politics. He said he planned to spend a substantial amount of time in the Granite State in recognition of its importance as the site of the nation's first primary. A campaign staffer later told a reporter that the candidate would reach out to the rest of the country through satellite-fed interviews with local media. There was little mention of what role the Internet would play in furthering his candidacy.

Clark certainly plans to use the Internet to raise money, and the Internet team in Little Rock promises to turn the campaign's Web sites into a new kind of virtual political community. But Clark's presidential fortunes aren't likely to hinge on further developments in cyberspace.

To understand why, it's important to explore how and why the Internet contributed to Dean's rise.

When he was still the relatively little-known former governor of Vermont, Dean shocked the Democratic political establishment when he reported raising $7.6 million in the quarter ending in June. The vast majority of his contributions were small and raised through the Internet. The fund-raising innovation catapulted him to the head of the Democratic pack and brought national attention to Dean's Web-savvy campaign manager, Joe Trippi, and his Internet operatives.

Also during the quarter, the number of people using a Web site (www.meetup.com) to find places to learn more about Dean began growing dramatically. In March and April, about 7,000 individuals joined the Dean in 2004 Meetup list. By June, the total swelled to more than 19,000 new joiners; it subsequently peaked in August at 28,000. The Dean blog debuted in March, a first in presidential campaign history, but it too went relatively unnoticed until the fund-raising coup announcement in early July.

None of this had been planned. Zephyr Teachout, the campaign's director of online organizing, started out working on traditional research and field operations. Blog master Mathew Gross, who wrote for the blog MyDD.com, just showed up in Burlington, Vt., and volunteered for general office duty. But as soon as Trippi and his cyber-oriented recruits discovered the power of the Internet to reach potential supporters and donors, the campaign moved to exploit them.

Dean's early gains in name recognition and support owed much to the perception that his campaign was "cool" because it used the Internet in new ways. But as a senior member of a rival campaign explained, Dean's Internet rep came about as a "perfect confluence of factors." Most important, Dean's anti-establishment, anti-Iraq-war message resonated with many in the group that is most digitally connected: younger, more affluent, better-educated voters.

The challenge Dean now faces is to reach voters who are not as cyber-active. According to a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life project, 24% of Americans are "truly offline." Typically, they are older, less well-off or unemployed, less educated, and Latino or black. These are precisely the groups targeted by Dean's principal Democratic rivals.

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