Published March 26, 2004
WASHINGTON – Radio came first. Television followed. The Internet is a Johnny-come-lately, but Howard Dean showed America how it can change politics forever, say election operatives.
"Joe [Trippi] and his colleagues really provided an incredible lesson that the power of the Web and the power of the technology means that if you've got a compelling message, you've got a fabulous virile way to distribute that," said Bush-Cheney '04 Campaign Chairman Ken Mehlman last week at a Politics Online Conference at George Washington University (search).
"The Internet is about to change everything. It is the one most powerful tool ever to be put in the hands of the average American," said Trippi, Dean's former campaign manager.
Dean relied heavily on the Internet to boost the visibility of the former Vermont governor's insurgent candidacy. Though his candidacy is now history, President Bush and John Kerry are taking a lesson from Dean's example. Both are using the Internet as a central part of their election efforts — airing ads, organizing supporters and raising cash.
Mehlman said that the Web is following a trend that started in the 1930s, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt (search) revolutionized the use of radio with his fireside chats. Today, still, the president and opposition party give weekly radio addresses.
Similarly, John F. Kennedy's 1960 televised debate with Richard Nixon demonstrated the power of TV, with viewers declaring the handsome Kennedy victorious while radio listeners believed Nixon had taken the day.
Mehlman said the Bush campaign strategy on the Internet includes registering voters, identifying supporters, shoring up the candidate's message and getting out the vote. The campaign site contains pages that display downloadable forms for voter registration and absentee voting as well as maps to help voters find their polling places.
A new Web feature of the Bush campaign is a Fact Log or "Flog," to be used by the Republican National Committee (search) to expose factual inaccuracies of opponents.
"Occasionally they will 'flog' someone," Mehlman said.
The Kerry campaign has managed to use the Internet effectively to raise much-needed monies. With his Internet fund-raising surging, Kerry has collected at least $14 million since the March 2 Super Tuesday primary contests, and hopes to raise an additional $5 million this week.
Both candidates are using the Internet to facilitate meetings and interaction among supporters — either through Bush's "parties for the president" or Kerry's MeetUps.
The Web is a great "tool to harness peer-to-peer influence," said Vinay Bhagat, founder and chief strategy officer for Convio (search), a company used by the Dean campaign. "Being bottom-up is important because you are never going to have enough staff to organize events."
Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns are taking advantage of the Internet to run ads at a lower price than the cost of television. A Bush Internet campaign ad released last week spoofs the Austin Powers movies and calls Kerry an "international man of mystery" for declining to name the foreign leaders whose support he claims.
On Monday, the Kerry camp released an ad that will run in 17 states on television, but Internet users across the country and around the world can see it on JohnKerry.com. The ad, titled "Fought for America," touts Kerry's military and political experience and features an announcer calling Kerry the candidate with "the military experience to defend America" and "a new plan to create jobs and put our economy back on track."
The biggest advantage of Internet advertising, say supporters, is that it can be directed — campaigns can criticize the other candidate to rally the base without turning off undecided voters.
"You can say a lot more things on the Internet than you could say on broadcast television and not get in any trouble doing it," said Democratic strategist Bob Beckel.
Mehlman said the Internet also enables campaigns to get around the "content filters" of unfriendly media and speak directly with voters.
"The Web is a great way to communicate," he said.
But even with the ability to connect with 6 million supporters through its site, Mehlman acknowledged that the Internet is not the be-all of campaigning.
"A good Web campaign is just a tool. The Web is a place where good ideas or good leaders can have supporters channeled to them. It's the cause that matters most," he said. None of the communication tools can be "substitutes for the message."
Dean's roller coaster candidacy is an example of the tool's abilities. On Jan. 31, 2003, Dean had just seven people working for the campaign, $157,000 in the bank and 400 supporters nationwide. His campaign ended up breaking fund-raising records and revolutionizing the way the Web will be used, Trippi said.
Still, though Dean went from being a virtual unknown to the temporary front-runner in large part to the Web, he still managed only one primary victory — in his home state of Vermont.
"The Internet's the only thing that's come along empowering the average American to do anything." Trippi said. "There was an ownership of the campaign. The campaign belonged to the people."
Trippi added that the Dean campaign was not a total defeat.
"If you look at the message of the party right now, it's the message that we built. That's a sea change in politics," he said.
Trippi estimated that it takes about 15 years for society to understand the full implications of new technology, the way it did radio, television and direct mail.
"We're at where TV was in the Nixon-Kennedy debate (search)," he said. "Change is going to come and it's going to be mind blowing. Dean's campaign was just the very first baby step of what is coming. Howard Dean didn't make it, but the genie's out of the bottle. The people have realized that they have the power."