Column by David Bienenstock
When the Republicans need to raise a few hundred thousand dollars for the 2004 presidential campaign, there’s nothing to it. Dick Cheney simply arrives at the home of a wealthy contributor and enjoys a gourmet meal: Flesh is pressed, backs scratched, tax cuts promised (perhaps a round of cigars, brandy, and villainous laughter), and then the vice president bids a fond adieu (though never in French), returning to his undisclosed location with a pocketful of fat checks. On July 28, 2003, Mr. Cheney flew into Columbia, South Carolina, for a $2,000-a-plate luncheon and jetted out with $300,000.
Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, spent the day eating a $3 turkey sandwich at his desk.
If this juxtaposition leaves you doubting the good doctor’s chances against George W. Bush and his political juggernaut, think again. The turkey sandwich was actually part of a clever fundraising drive. A photo of Dean enjoying his meager lunch was posted to one of the Democratic presidential candidate’s myriad campaign Websites, along with a call to action asking grassroots supporters to help "beat back special interests" by contributing more online than was raised by Cheney in South Carolina. After three days, the effort had netted $500,000 and counting. Within a week, the erstwhile turkey-eater was on the cover of Time and Newsweek.
"As I have traveled the country this past year, my candidacy has changed," Dean acknowledged before a Democratic debate in New Mexico, where he fully assumed the role of front-runner. "No longer is it about one doctor-governor’s crusade for health care, balanced budgets, and early education—it has become something altogether different and more powerful. We are now the greatest grassroots campaign of the modern era."
The campaign’s main Website, Dean for America, serves as the central hub for a vast network of sites contributing to the cause, including an online army of independent bloggers who combine the fervor of the true believer with the technology of the 21st century. There’s even an official blog maintained and updated several times a day by campaign staffers who are overflowing with the infectious enthusiasm and heady optimism that represents political campaigning at its best. Experiencing the Dean blog is like watching the documentary The War Room unfold in real time, with an open-source ethic that invites average citizens into the effort. Blog for America encourages them by posting (and sometimes personally responding to) reader comments on every dispatch, news item, and campaign strategy. The result has been a give-and-take between the candidate and his supporters that gives real bite to their claim of having a "people- powered" Howard to rally behind.
"The one thing that struck me was how quickly you find out you’re not alone," reads a typical post from a member of Dean’s blog nation. "The realization that you are not truly isolated is quite empowering and thus more likely to encourage participation."
Al Gore may have invented the Internet (no, he never really said that), but Howard Dean is the first politician to have found his constituency in cyberspace. Dean’s early opposition to unilateral war in Iraq earned him an initial passionate following among those deeply disillusioned with Bush’s America. But it took the Web to spread that message to the wired masses, particularly through local meetings organized via the Website Meetup, which empowers aficionados of any ilk to organize meetings of their similarly obsessed peers. Meetup currently services thousands of local interest groups—from stamp collectors and dog owners to witches and Radiohead fans. But Howard Dean is their star, drawing tens of thousands of volunteers to his Meetup events, which are held at several hundred locations simultaneously on the first Wednesday of every month.
But will all this online activism translate into real-world support as the Democratic convention and general election draw closer? Only time will tell, but so far the online Dean machine has garnered thousands of volunteers and millions in cash, and has left eight bewildered Democratic rivals choking on its dust. In this era of media consolidation, the revolution will not be televised—but it just might be downloaded.
COMPLETE STORY IN JANUARY 2004 HIGH TIMES