Grass-roots Politics... Without the Grass

We are all familiar with the folkloric image of the grass-roots politician going door to door, asking to speak to the man or the woman of the house, and then delivering a home-spun, front-stoop speech to advocate their candidacy.

Palms pressing and face-to-face greetings were ways to personalize the politician and/or political issue. It has been proven time and again to be the best way to get votes and - some would argue more importantly - raise funds.

In the last few weeks there have been several stories in the main stream press featuring the growing power of the Internet as a campaign tool and fund-raising device.

There are now two different web sites up and running dedicated solely to the task of getting retired general Wesley Clark to run for president in 2004. and are both set up to collect signatures and statements from supporters, not to mention means by which donations to the cause can be made. The draftwesleyclark site has been mention several times on both CNN and 'Meet the Press.'



An article in this last Sunday's New York Time's 'Week in Review' section featured snippet titled, 'Howard Dean, Web Master,' which drew out a few facts from an article that ran earlier last week in the Times about Dean's surprising surge in fund-raising and popularity during the second quarter of the year.

For those of you who missed it, during the second quarter of 2003, Howard Dean raised $7.5 million, $4.1 million from over the web. That's 55% of his funds raised via the Internet. As the piece in the Times points out, supporters organized meetings nationally last week through, drawing 55,000 people in 250 communities. is a site enabled with technology married to a global network of local venues that helps people self-organize local group gatherings on the same day wherever these venues happen to be.

According to Nielsen-NetRatings' @plan Summer 2003 survey, there are an estimated 144 million-plus adults 18 or older who have been online in the last 30 days. There are approximately 150 million registered voters in the United States. Though it is difficult to know exactly how many of those who are registered to vote are among those online, the sheer size of the eligible voting population we are talking about as being online regularly is simply to large for political organizations to ignore.

It is now incumbent upon any group that has traditionally relied on one-to-one interaction to advocate a position or promote a candidate for office to use the strengths of the Internet to communicate that position to a hard-to-reach and often-times disaffected population.

It is a fact that politics, political engagement, and individual usage of the Internet have converged to create the conditions for political organizations and structured interests to use digital media as a way to A) maintain contact with existing constituents and B) make new contacts with prospective activists, supporters, and voters.

Two-thirds of politically engaged Internet users during the 2002 election cycle sent or received email related to the campaign. Interest-group Web sites were visited and researched for information by 73% of those who use the Internet for politics in 2002 (Pew Internet & the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, March 2003).

In eight tightly contested Senate races, online advertising banners were bought by Republican candidates on a collection of AOL Time Warner sites five days before Election Day. Six of those eight Republican candidates won their race.

Oh, and back to the money, which, as we all know, if the most important part of politics today.

Some of you fair readers might be aware of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform that is currently being challenged which would restrict what, how, and how much money is spent on political campaigns. What you might not be aware of is while the Campaign Finance Reform Act restricts the use of television and radio ads paid for with corporate or labor money 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before the general election, there are no restrictions on Internet advertising.

There is no doubt that the promise has long lied dormant for the Internet to be an extremely powerful tool for conducting politics. Voting online was one of the earliest ideas proffered regarding the Internet's potential to positively impact politics. I'm not sure that those seeking to do good works and change politics for the better would have initially thought about the possibilities of spreading the word and raising money quite as effectively as is now being demonstrated by a few politically active individuals now engaged. Organizations like or the Human Rights Campaign may have gotten involved early on to get the word out and find support for their causes, but what we are seeing with the likes of the Howard Dean campaign is a whole new phenomenon that has long been possible but is only now being demonstrated effectively.

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