How the Internet Is Changing Politics

Candidates learn to wage campaigns in a new and promising battleground

Old Glory sways limply in the breeze from a hardware store just west of The Grand Saloon, an old-school pub on East 23rd Street in Manhattan whose red neon sign and copper facade promise an inviting retreat from the biting January wind. Inside, about 100 Wesley Clark supporters strain to hear a blonde-bobbed, middle-aged woman with a slight voice.

“We can’t hear you,” one of them shouts. “Can you speak up?” pleads another, cupping his hand to his ear.

A stout, white-haired veteran takes a swig of dark beer and swaps military credentials with an older man who wears a “Veterans for Clark” pin. A curly-haired, fortysomething woman admires a fellow supporter’s regalia, which includes a button that reads, “Women for Clark,” and another that relays an endorsement from hip-hop group OutKast. “Where did you get those?” she asks. The reply: “I found them on eBay.”

It’s the first Monday of the new year, and Clark, the former U.S. Army general and NATO commander, knows where to find his troops. Some 57,000 supporters have registered to attend monthly meetings at hundreds of establishments like this one nationwide. They come from all walks of life, but many of them have one key thing in common: They got here via the Internet.

Where political campaigning is concerned, the Web is no longer only a place to troll for rare buttons. It is no longer a newfangled top-down communications tool. Increasingly, politicians and their advisers are realizing the true potential for galvanizing their campaigns online. They are beginning to understand the Web—and, to some extent, harness it—as a fundraising, organizing, community-building, marketing and get-out-the-vote mechanism.

Much of this is due to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The first presidential candidate to fully harness the power of the Internet, McCain orchestrated a huge online fundraising blitz after his upset victory in the 2000 New Hampshire primary. In this campaign season, it is Howard Dean who has taken the McCain lesson to heart. The former Vermont governor’s team, led by campaign manager and Internet evangelist Joe Trippi, leveraged the Web to build grassroots support and catapult the one-time longshot into one of the top contenders in the race for the Democratic nomination.

“Howard Dean, a nobody from nowhere with no chance, used the Internet basically in the course of seven months to become the leading candidate of the Democratic Party for president,” says Phil Noble, founder of Politics Online, a Charleston, S.C., firm that provides tools for online campaigning and fundraising.

Dean’s disappointing showing in the Iowa caucuses raises doubts about his Internet- driven campaign’s ability to bring in the votes. Still, it seems clear that many of Dean’s methods for raising awareness, support and funds online will be emulated—and already have been, to some degree, by his rivals in this race.

Dean’s strategy has been propelled largely by the activist nature of his supporters—by the notion that many visitors to his site would be eager to get involved in his campaign beyond making a cash donation. As such, his site has an activist flavor and many touch points for involvement. Such a strategy “wouldn’t suit every candidate. It fits Howard Dean well,” says Morra Aarons, director of Internet communications for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. Visitors to Kerry’s site are more inclined simply to be seeking information, Aarons says.

But the candidates are taking bits and pieces from Dean. “There are definitely tools and tricks that the Dean campaign uses that we’ve looked at and said, ‘Oh, maybe we can use this,’ ” admits Mike Liddell, director of Internet strategy for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. Examples include posting images of Lieberman flanked by supporters (to visually illustrate the fact that he has a following) and changing the site’s Weblog from a diary to an interactive feature that welcomes comments from visitors. Liddell adds, however, that “my job is not to do what Dean has done. My job is to create an online communications strategy that really mirrors our candidate.”

Not everyone can do what Dean has done. The Internet plays to his strengths—just as TV played to the strengths of John F. Kennedy. Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet in Washington, theorizes that “charismatic, outspoken mavericks” are the ones who attract Internet followings. “Since the Internet is interactive and it requires the user to take an affirmative action, to go to a Web site, to log on to a chat room, you have to have candidates that motivate people,” she says. “It’s not like couch potatoes, where you just sit there and are the passive recipient of whatever commercial comes along.”

It may be no surprise, then, that the three candidates with perhaps the strongest, most galvanizing personalities—Dean, Clark and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio—are the ones who have gained the most grassroots Web support. For example, all three have seized on Meetup, an online service that like-minded people can use to congregate locally. (The Clark camp used Meetup to spread the word about the event at The Grand Saloon.) According to the site’s figures, some 175,000 of Dean’s supporters, 60,000 of Clark’s and 20,000 of Kucinich’s have registered through Meetup to attend gatherings.

Dean, Clark and Kucinich have also fared well with online fundraising, having reportedly earned nearly half of their donations through the Internet. That success allowed Dean, who reeled in about $40 million online and offline last year, to reject public financing—freeing him from spending caps in each state. It put Clark, who received about $10 million in fourth-quarter donations, in a position to make his late start. And it armed long-shot Kucinich, who raised about $1.5 million in Q4, with enough funds to continue his battle.

By contrast, Lieberman, whose campaign did not release preliminary fourth-quarter numbers, has derived only about 10 percent of his donations from the Internet, according to Liddell.

And it’s not just the total dollar figures involved. It’s the size of the donations. It is becoming efficient for the Democrats to target small donors as they chip away at President Bush’s $130 million war chest—a development that has a democratizing effect on the fundraising process. “If you’re [raising money] $50 at a time, you’re going to spend a lot more time and energy that’s not reasonable. But on the Internet, it’s not cost- prohibitive,” says Brian Reich, director of the Boston outpost of Mindshare Internet Campaigns, which helps organizations advance public-affairs objectives online.

“For the first time, you have a door into the political process that isn’t marked ‘big money,’ ” Darr says. “That changes everything.”

The Internet is also revolutionizing the role of Joe Citizen in the process. Three months ago, Lisa Thaler was waffling between Dean and Clark, so she visited their Web sites. The 38-year-old psychotherapist gravitated toward Clark’s site, and after attending one of his Meetups, she was sold. “I haven’t been involved with a presidential campaign until [now],” says the Manhattan resident, who previously made her voting decisions based on political coverage in The New York Times.

Thaler’s story is not unique. The Web has empowered people to get involved early and often by making information and volunteering opportunities readily accessible. “It used to be this big psychological leap to go volunteer,” says Darr. “Now you can just kind of dip your toe in the water. … You can go to a Meetup and lurk at the bar and check it out. You can proceed at your own pace.”

Some campaigns have online forums or blogs to encourage an open dialogue in a nonthreatening environment. This peer-to-peer communications model runs contrary to the traditional controlled, top-down, message-focused system. “The mantra has always been, ‘Keep your message consistent. Keep your message consistent,’ ” says John Hlinko, director of Internet strategy for Clark. “That was all well and good in the past. Now it’s a recipe for disaster. … You can choose to have a Stalinist structure that’s really doctrinaire and that’s really opposed to grassroots. Or you can say, ‘Go forth. Do what you’re going to do.’ As long as we’re running in the same direction, it’s much better to give some freedom.”

Before their candidate dropped out of the race, the team working for Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., made similar steps. “Having that two-way communication is what keeps people coming back to the site,” says Dan Melleby, senior director of technologies at Westhill Partners, a New York-based consulting firm that was advising Gephardt’s Web group. “They follow their candidate. They feel very much a part of the campaign.” (Of course, relinquishing control is risky. For one thing, unsympathetic visitors—or “trolls”—can infiltrate message boards with ease. Choosing the safer path, Kerry’s forum, for example, whose topics range from Iraq and foreign policy to healthcare, is overseen by a moderator.)

The rate of change in the use of online tools is remarkable. Despite his advocacy of the Internet, Al Gore failed to actualize its potential during his bid for the White House in 2000. “We had a fabulous Web page. But basically it just sat there,” recalls Reich, Gore’s former briefing director. “We had a big e-mail network, but there wasn’t the real kind of segmentation that you would need to personalize e-mails and to make people feel like they were receiving something special from the campaign.” Conversely, with Dean’s campaign, Reich says, “I feel like I have a personal relationship with Joe Trippi,” who regularly sends messages to Dean’s e-mail list of roughly half a million people.

Plus, what’s true for online marketers is true for online politicians: A Web-savvy audience is an attractive audience. Last October alone, nearly 2 million people visited a Democratic presidential candidate’s Web site, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. While that group represents only about 1.4 percent of the 136 million total U.S. Internet users, its makeup is intriguing. It is a group that skews toward 18-34-year-old females who are better educated, visit almost two and a half times as many Web sites as the typical surfer and spend twice as much time online. As the power of network TV continues to erode due to fragmentation and waning viewership, the Web offers a cost-efficient alternative for campaigns looking to reach this highly influential segment.

Still, online campaign expenditures remain insignificant compared with offline spending. Reich estimates that the Democratic contenders are generally putting less than 3 percent of their budgets behind the Internet—although Dean, he says, may be allocating about 10 percent.

Why the lack of investment? “The people who run campaigns largely are all in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and they grew up in the Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan era and those types of campaigns, where television is everything,” says Reich. “So, they think television is what sways voters. You know what? Television does not sway voters. TV is not going to have the effect that it once had. But campaigns are still going to dump upwards of 60 percent of their budgets into television. Why? Because the people who run campaigns are stuck in the mold.”

Yet for every Beltway traditionalist who retires, an Internet proponent like Mike Liddell, Morra Aarons or John Hlinko comes onto the scene. And once a few more Howard Deans emerge—and a few more egos are checked—the tide may turn for good. Predicts Noble: “I think the Internet will have more of an impact on politics than probably television and radio combined.”

In the meantime, the unsung Web teams will keep toiling away as primary season heats up. Liddell, a University of Texas graduate who ran his own political Web site development company in Austin before being recruited by Lieberman in July, has had little time to get acclimated to life in D.C. The 25-year-old generally clocks 70- to 80-hour work weeks overseeing what he describes as a “little media empire” that requires constant updating, from issue statements and speeches to press releases, photographs and TV ads.

Hlinko, 36, who is from D.C., looks forward to returning—hopefully victorious—to the nation’s capital from Little Rock, Ark., where Clark’s campaign is based. It’s been a long road for Hlinko, who last April launched a letter-writing campaign via DraftWesley to convince Clark to enter the race. The initiative, which produced more than 50,000 letters, earned Hlinko and three friends a Sunday dinner with Clark and his family at a Los Angeles hotel in early September. The following week, Clark declared his bid, and Hlinko hasn’t slowed down since.

“The one thing that bums me out is that my fiancée is back in D.C. In fact, I proposed to her three days after Clark announced,” says Hlinko, who has worked as an investment banker, a campaign manager, an economist, a dot-com marketing director and a professional comedy writer. “We had a real, real nice dinner, and I took her back to the hotel where I was staying. And I had a big sign saying, ‘Thank you for accepting this draft.’ Then I gave her a little rock in Little Rock.”

No matter the outcome, Aarons, 27, echoes what all the Democratic contenders’ Web strategists say: “It’s my dream job.”

“There are real people out there logging on to Democratic Web sites and supporting campaigns in small amounts like they’ve never done before,” says Reich. “People who have never voted before are probably going to go to the polls. People who have never given before are going to give and become involved in the political process. The Internet provides an incredible, never-been-seen-before opportunity for those people who feel like they have a stake in this election.”