The Web Rewires the Movement
"Whether it has coalesced around the outsider candidacies of Ross Perot or Jerry Brown, grassroots disaffection and energy have always been there," Trippi says. "What's changed this time around is the maturity of the Internet as a peer-to-peer tool."
Dean enthusiasts have made great use of a free web service, meetup.com (a commercial cousin of MoveOn's meeting tool). It allows users to identify and then meet face to face with like-minded locals who might share an interest in knitting, motorcycles or, say, Howard Dean for President. Anyone who joins a meet-up can volunteer as a "host," someone who shows up a half-hour early to meet and greet. Members vote on a public venue for the get-togethers from a preapproved list in their area.
Tim Cairl, 28, a financial consultant whose only previous political involvement had been to call his Congressperson a few times when prompted by MoveOn, put himself forward as host of the Atlanta Dean meet-up when it was first coming together. In March, forty-two Dean fans crowded together in the back room of a downtown restaurant. The group was mostly white but ranged widely in age and occupation; the majority were new to political involvement of any kind. The typical attendee--upset about the war, and curious about Dean after seeing him on TV--had browsed his campaign website, and then found her way to meetup.com. "Meetup.com gets us in the same room," Cairl says. "We have to take it from there."
The feeling was social, almost fraternal. The agenda was simple: introductions, then, What do we like about Dean? What should we do? What the group did, given that no campaign organization yet existed in their late-primary state, was create one, appointing county leaders, scheduling tabling and showing up to local Democratic Party meetings. Subsequent meet-ups became a way to funnel new volunteers into this work; attendance grew to sixty-five in April, 150 by May, and soon meetings sprang up in cities across Georgia. Nationally, the 500 people who had signed up for Dean meet-ups in January grew to 60,000 by mid-July.
Trippi says traditional campaign structures run on a military model--from the national campaign director down to local precinct captains--are deadly for an Internet strategy. Indeed, the more typical Kerry and Edwards campaigns have only 5,600 and 1,000 members, respectively, on meetup.com. "The other campaigns see this Internet activity as chaos. They can't control it, so they don't want to waste time on it. We trust our members to be good representatives of their own views. Instead of trying to control the chaos, we feed it and give it a little direction."
Matzzie says all this activity is impressive, but could prove irrelevant in the general election if it doesn't take place in the right precincts. He notes that in 2002 only 94,000 well-placed votes would have given the Democrats control of Congress. He quotes recent studies from Yale's Institution for Social and Policy Studies showing that e-mail on its own--just like direct mail and commercial phone banking--does not increase voter turnout. "Anyone who gives you his e-mail is already with you," says Matzzie. "The trick is to get those people to talk to their neighbors, friends and colleagues offline. Those are the people we need to mobilize." He's been growing the AFL-CIO e-mail list by hundreds of thousands in the past few months with this goal in mind. But he'll combine online work with shoe leather and door-knocking. Stanionis says the discussion among online advocacy experts is similar--how to get beyond the just-send-an-e-mail consumer model to "escalate the ask" and achieve more real-world involvement.
Matzzie is keeping a close eye on how the two major parties leverage technology in the months ahead: The Republican National Committee recently launched an "on-line toolbox for Republican activists" at GOPTeamLeader.com, and the Democrats will be bringing a similar site online soon. The net does not favor left or right, but it may favor outsiders who don't have access to the power of incumbency, and progressives seem to have been quickest at putting it to use. For the moment the biggest and best-managed e-mail lists are in the hands of liberal advocates who are allies of the Democrats. But the Republicans, Matzzie says, have the stronger field organization, once a Democratic strength.