WASHINGTON – The Democratic Party is hoping to exploit the Internet as a campaign tool for the 2004 presidential elections — and so far, candidate Howard Dean (search) is generating the most electronic chatter.
"Dean has gotten great buzz," said Jonah Seiger, an Internet strategist and visiting fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. "Whether that buzz translates into tangible success for the campaign remains to be seen."
But any buzz is good buzz for the Democratic Party as it competes with the popularity of President George Bush. Party moderates are following in the footsteps of conservative and liberal grassroots movements and stepping up their use of the Net to generate votes.
"We're moving into an era that is realizing the promise of this new communication tool," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network (search), the political-action counterpart of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council (search). The group held its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., last week, where it stressed the importance of online fund raising and organizing.
"It allows a much more direct connection between voters, citizens and the political world," Rosenberg added. "The political parties who master this and get ahead of the curve rather than behind the curve are those that are going to succeed."
Dean, a former Vermont governor who has mounted an impressive campaign despite little national name recognition, has generated strong support among liberal Democrats thanks in large part to online campaigning.
Calling himself the representative of the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," Dean is making use of the growing popularity of Meetup.com (search ). The online hub has attracted some 370,000 visitors who log on to targeted “topic” groups covering everything from Star Trek to Corvettes. Meetup.com participants then schedule “meet ups” in bars and coffee houses in cities near them.
Since putting up a "Dean in 2004" topic on the site earlier this year, the former Vermont governor has commanded 34,681 fans who are meeting in numerous cities across the county to spur energy for his campaign.
Seeing his popularity on Meetup.com, Dean campaign staff entered into a reciprocal relationship with its operators, paying them $2,500 a month for the thousands of names and e-mail addresses of those who express an interest in receiving campaign alerts and other solicitations from Dean.
"Howard Dean has a rabid following," said Myles Weissleder, vice president for communications at Meetup.com, which celebrated its first birthday last week. "Dean mentions his Meetup site in every stump speech he gives. It's certainly getting a lot of press and is definitely one of the cornerstones of the Dean campaign."
Courtney O'Donnell, spokeswoman for Dean, agrees.
"Meetup members take initiative on their own — planning events, recruiting members and bringing their neighbors, friends and families out to hear the message of the Dean campaign," O'Donnell told Foxnews.com. "Meetup has been an incredible organizational tool."
Strategists say online campaigning is just beginning to reach its potential. The Internet was used in earnest in 1998 for candidates' static "brochure" Web sites. During his unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination in 2000, Sen. John McCain used the Web as a significant fund-raising tool, generating nearly $6.5 million.
"The Web site is no longer a sideshow — it is as much a part of the campaign as polling, communications and direct mailing," said Howard Opinsky, McCain's press secretary for the 2000 primary race. "I think the Internet was crucial to Sen. McCain's ability to raise and spend money quickly as his popularity skyrocketed."
Grassroots movements on both sides of the political spectrum have found the Internet key for years in getting across their messages, circulating petitions and organizing members in the field.
"I think Republicans invested more, earlier, and in some ways, have had a head start," said Seiger. "They began an aggressive effort to build their e-mail lists and have had success."
But among the grassroots, MoveOn.org (search) — which began in 1998 as an electronic petition drive against the impeachment of President Clinton — has had the most success. The liberal-minded site not only organizes protests and circulates letters to the White House, but it raised $2 million for 28 candidates in the 2000 congressional race.
A million people are expected to vote in the "first ever Internet primary," sponsored by MoveOn.org. The primary began at midnight Monday and was to remain open through midnight Wednesday, but was extended for at least another hour and 15 minutes to account for a glitch.
Richard Viguerie, who runs the traditional direct marketing business American Target Advertising (search) and operates ConservativeHQ.com (search), believes the Internet "will play a greater role in 2004," but he says its impact is "still at the margins" and cautions against the hype.
"People will say John McCain raised all of that money on his Web site — but the establishment media was driving people to the Web site. It happened to be a vehicle where people could go and contribute money to his campaign," he said.
Experts agree that online campaigning has not taken anything away from the influence of traditional direct mail solicitations or regular media. But, they say, the Internet has spurred more people to get actively involved in politics than otherwise might have.
"What you are really seeing for the first time, is parties asking people to do real things, not just give money. It helps them become a more direct advocate for their cause," said Rosenberg.