Yet the Internet boom has not missed Dean. Rather, it has handed him a bonanza of cash and buzz that would make most 1990s dotcom veterans and politicians weep. In the past three months, it was revealed last week, Dean has raised $7.5 million, $1.5 million more than his nearest Democratic rival, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, nudging Dean into the top tier of Democratic candidates. Two-thirds of all Dean contributions were made online. And as often happens in politics, bucks begat the Big Mo. A poll in the first caucus state, Iowa, released last week put Dean in second place, a mere percentage point behind Dick Gephardt. Once viewed as a no-hoper for the nomination, notable only for his vehement opposition to the war in Iraq, Dean is increasingly forcing his party's other candidates to adjust their strategies as they figure out how to slow his momentum.
Rival campaigns immediately scrambled to prove that Dean's breakthrough meant little. "Nobody has ever doubted the intensity of Dean's support," says Jim Jordan, campaign manager for Kerry. "The question is, Can he broaden it?" Dean, meanwhile, is quick to downplay the notion that his rise is only a cybersurge: "The Internet is a tool, not a campaign platform."
Dean's campaign stands out because the Internet provides its fuel as well as its funding. His early success suggests that the Internet may prove to be the great modern means of creating grassroots momentum. His Internet supporters an army 55,000 strong and growing find one another on the Web and are cheered on at every step by what may be the most interactive effort in electoral history. "They weren't just sending email solicitations," a Democratic official says of the Dean campaign. "They developed an online community, nurtured it and, once it was firmly established, mined it."
Dean's chain of websites, run mainly by tech-savvy campaign manager Joe Trippi and the campaign's four Internet-dedicated staff members, has a sense of fun that rivals old-time political carnivals. You can download the Dean Techno Dance Mix of one of his speeches from dean2004.blogspot.com. howarddean.tv offers Dean appearances delivered to your desktop. Then there is blogforamerica.com (blog is short for weblog), a candid daily journal updated by staffers from wherever Dean happens to be. Communications director Kate O'Connor was reluctant to file to the blog at first, but her entry writing sprinkled with exclamation points ("we are driving in a hybrid vehicle!!")--has become a huge hit in the Dean community. "It's amazing," gushes O'Connor. "I have a following."
Dean's online presence would amount to little more than fun and games if not for a couple of influential websites unaffiliated with the campaign. One of them is Meetup.com, a commercial site that mostly helps Harry Potter fans or Star Trek geeks arrange get-togethers with like-minded strangers. Once the campaign discovered hundreds of supporters at the site, aides realized it was an extremely useful way to connect Dean supporters and made an agreement with the site.
Here's how it works: Last Wednesday those 55,000 Dean supporters were directed by Meetup to go to 310 locations across the U.S. at 7 p.m. local time. There they were each given the addresses of three undecided Democrats in Iowa and asked to send handwritten letters to them. Campaigns are charged $2,500 for the service, a deal referred to by Meetup's founders as the Trippi special. Dean is by far the most popular candidate on Meetup, with Kerry a distant second.
These meetups are evidence of the enthusiasm out there for the former Governor enthusiasm the other campaigns can only envy. They are also evidence of a homogeneity among those enthusiasts. In San Rafael, Calif., last Wednesday, 75 attendees packed the back room of the Limelight restaurant. There were veteran campaigners and neophytes, a few Kerry supporters willing to be convinced and even a couple of Republicans angry at Bush but not a single non-Caucasian. An ethnic-outreach subcommittee was swiftly announced.
The other website that has given Dean a healthy boost is MoveOn.org, a left-leaning group that played a prominent role in this year's antiwar protests and has an enormous online following. In recent weeks MoveOn held what was billed as "the first Internet primary." Some 317,000 people voted, and Dean came in first, with an impressive 44%. But the relevance of the poll was put in doubt by the Democrat who came in second: the very liberal Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, a true no-chance candidate.