WASHINGTON – Wanda Pease and Alicia Male say getting involved in Howard Dean's (search) presidential campaign is their first foray into politics, and they happily admit that part of the draw of attending a recent "Dean Meetup" was the chance to meet men who were doing the same.
"I thought it would be a great opportunity to meet young, like-minded individuals," said Pease, 33, who works for a consulting firm in Fairfax, Va.
"We're both singles and are both involved in the singles scene," she said, nodding to Male, 36, who contended that Dean's energy on the campaign has attracted many young voters who up until now did not think they had any reason to get involved in politics.
Supporters like Pease and Male say Dean has effectively tapped into a sizable pool of 18- to 40- year-olds who are looking to expand both their political and social lives. Meet-ups such as the one held at Whitlows on Wilson, a homey eatery amid downtown Arlington's trendy commercial strip, drew more than 100 supporters, many of whom split their time listening to organizers on the microphone in the corner and mixing it up by the bar.
"If I met a nice, single woman and sparks flew it would be nice to say we met at a Dean rally," said Joshua Stack, 28, a policy analyst for the Department of Energy. But Stack said he resented the suggestion that anyone was coming out just to hook up, emphasizing that everyone there really wants to defeat President Bush in 2004.
At this particular early December meet-up, the Dean campaign announced that 150,000 supporters had signed up to attend the mixers scheduled at bars and coffee houses in more than 800 locations that evening, all coordinated by Meetup.com (search). Harnessing the power of the Internet, Dean also held a birthday bash in more than 10 states at 180 locations, and his campaign was planning simultaneous holiday parties in cities around the nation.
At Whitlow's, where a mini-documentary of Dean's life played, one person handed out fliers encouraging supporters to host Dean-oriented New Year's house parties.
Audience members at Dean meet-ups may settle in with a beer and juicy anti-Republican discourse, but they are also likely to be asked to pass out fliers for a rally or sit at the bar and write a brief letter of support for Dean to an Iowa voter, said Kathie Boettrich, who has been coordinating Dean meet-ups in Washington, D.C.
"It’s not a dating service. We’re not there just to shoot the breeze," Boettrich said. "We’re giving people a real sense that they’re making a difference."
Ari Mittleman, a George Washington University senior and Dean volunteer, said that in the beginning, a pretty loose assortment of individuals showed up at the meet-ups.
"It was mainly an opportunity for people who lived in the same zip code to talk about current events, politics and Howard Dean," he said.
But as the campaign geared up, so did attendance and level of commitment, Mittleman added.
"We have people who are willing to drive fairly long distances to get to these things," said Kimberly Krautter, who does communication work for Georgia for Dean, a volunteer group. She describes the attendees at the Atlanta meet-ups as young college students, blue-collar workers, retirees and young professionals.
But Dean hasn't cornered the market on combining the social with the political to grab new supporters. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark both use meet-ups to reach young voters, though their efforts pale in comparison to Dean's success. And North Carolina Sen. John Edwards encourages visitors to his Web site to host debate parties.
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who has tried to reach untapped voters at hip-hop rallies in Washington, D.C., and California, has really taken the social aspect of campaigning to the next level, having Cupid work overtime for him on www.PoliticsNH.com.
During a candidate debate in which he was asked what kind of first lady he would have, the twice-divorced congressman described his ideal mate. Refusing to miss the opportunity to play matchmaker, the Web's sponsors hosted a contest to find true love for Kucinich. After judging 80 essays submitted by women who wanted to be Kucinich's first lady, judges awarded a date with the congressman to Gina Marie Santore, which Kucinich is expected to honor.
Such theatrics may not move the candidates anywhere on the political scale, say political observers, and love connections, especially among the younger set, are unlikely to impact the polls.
Generation X-ers, and the even younger “Generation DotNet” -- described as the country's 28 million 18- to 24-year-olds -- voted in a much smaller percentage in the 2000 presidential election -- 42 percent compared with 64 percent of citizens 25 and older, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
“[Dean] seems to be doing a good job to the extent that he been working the Internet arena and the like. But it still must be a small percentage of the population they’re touching at this point,” said Scott Keeter, a researcher with the Pew Research Center for the People in the Press.
While these events serve their purpose in energizing the activists, Republican strategist Jim McLaughlin said, "They are not necessarily going to have an effect on the general election."
"The average age of the primary and caucus voter is much older," and won’t care either way about meet-ups or other hip outreach strategies, McLaughlin added.