Political Parties Rethink Web Efforts

Republicans and Democrats have revamped their national Web sites after a record-setting year for political organizing and fund raising on the Internet.

Both parties acknowledge that Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean's (search) extraordinary success using the Internet to help raise a Democratic Party record of $40 million last year and organize tens of thousands of supporters caught their attention and prompted the new-and-improved Web sites.

Democrats unveiled theirs last week, with changes to make it easier to sign up supporters for "virtual precincts" and tell people how to contact local media organizations. Detail was added to its criticism of President Bush's record.

The Democratic National Committee (search) site also provides links to help Democrats meet other Democrats, through Meetup.com, which Dean used last year to galvanize his supporters.

Republicans already used their Web site to recruit "team leaders" who are asked to recruit others — often those with common interests outside of politics. That program was started after the 2000 election.

The Republican National Committee (search) site was revamped in January with the addition of numerous interactive features. Users can check out "Kerry vs. Kerry" — a boxing match with Kerry battling himself on issues from the Iraq war to tax cuts. The site also offers a Kerry "Spendometer" that shows GOP estimates of the costs of Kerry's proposals.

Independent analysts of Internet use say Dean, the former Vermont governor, gets much of the credit for moving the Internet into the mainstream of political campaigning.

"There's before Dean and after Dean. Dean made all the difference, he put it all together," said Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University.

Darr noted that several sites like MoveOn.org (search), a liberal advocacy group, and Meetup.com had been using the Internet successfully for years. Such politicians as Republican Sen. John McCain, a candidate for president in 2000, used it to raise campaign money before Dean caught on, Darr said.

"The Internet went from something people saw as bells and whistles and something they had to do to avoid looking old-fashioned to something they really wanted to do — both to raise money and organize volunteers," she said.

RNC spokeswoman Christine Iverson said Dean's success offered a reminder of how the Web can be an effective political organizing tool — and the importance of combining it with face-to-face organizing efforts.

Jano Cabrera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said Dean's success was a big factor in the revamping of its Web page.

"If there's one lesson learned from the Democratic primary season," Cabrera said, "it's that voters are now comfortable with using the Internet to politically organize."