by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
July 4, 2003
THANKS TO THE NET, HOWARD DEAN HITS THE BIG TIME
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- They aren't laughing anymore.
The people who believed that former Vermont governor Howard Dean was nothing more than a hopeless longshot for the Democratic presidential nomination now know otherwise.
That's because the political pros and the Washington press corps (or as MediaWhoresOnline likes to call them, the "Beltway Kool Kidz") not only underestimated Dean, they also underestimated the power of the Internet as an organizational and fundraising tool.
Dean pulled off a pair of shockers in recent days. In MoveOn.org PAC's online Democratic presidential primary, Dean crushed the rest of the field. With nearly 320,000 votes cast (or more votes than were cast in the 2000 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary and Iowa and South Carolina presidential caucuses, combined), Dean won 44 percent of the vote. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich was second with 24 percent and John Kerry was a distant third with 16 percent.
Considering the voters who cast ballots in the MoveOn primary (myself included) constitute a more liberal electorate than most primary states, it wasn't much of a surprise to see the rest of the field in single digits. John Edwards had only 3 percent of the vote. Dick Gephardt and Bob Graham drew less than 2.5 percent. Carol Moseley Braun (2.21 percent) outpolled Joe Lieberman (1.92 percent) and Al Sharpton finished last at 0.53 percent.
Since no candidate finished with more than 50 percent of the vote, MoveOn will not be making an endorsement just yet. But the MoveOn primary had two more important results - most of the voters said they would "enthusiastically support" whomever won the Democratic nomination and nearly 50,000 voters pledged to contribute nearly $2 million to Democratic candidates.
That leads to the other Dean shocker. In the fundraising reporting period that ended on June 30, Dean raised $7.5 million. About $1 million of that amount came in the last few days before the reporting deadline.
Like it or not, the fundraising primary is as important (if not more so) than the actual voting. Dean now has more than $9 million in his campaign coffers, more than $2 million of which was raised via the Internet (the average online donation was about $74).
It is clear that Dean and his campaign staff astutely realized that the Internet would be the secret weapon in this campaign. While the other candidates largely ignored the possibilities of online campaigning, Dean's staff recognized that the Net offers a fast and inexpensive way to reach voters - especially people who don't normally get involved in politics.
In a way, Dean just caught the wave that MoveOn started. It's true that MoveOn has built itself up into a powerful political force by tapping into the immense power of the Internet. But MoveOn's success is not just about the medium, but the message.
"Every time we did something, every time we showed leadership, our membership went up," said MoveOn co-founder Wes Boyd at the recent Take Back America conference in Washington.
Boyd is a relative newcomer to politics. He and his wife, Joan Blades, made their fortune with their software company, Berkeley Systems, which produced the popular "After Dark" screen saver series (you do remember the flying toasters, don't you?) and the interactive trivia game "You Don't Know Jack."
Like many Americans in 1998, Boyd and Blades were appalled by the partisan circus that was the Clinton impeachment. So they started a online petition drive to urge Congress to censure, rather than impeach, President Clinton and then move on. An initial e-mail to about 300 friends mushroomed into a campaign which ended up with more than a half-million signatures.
But the bigger surprise to Boyd and Blades was not how many people signed the online petition, but how many people wanted to give money to Democrats through MoveOn's political action committee. It has raised more than $6.5 million over the last four years and hopes to double that amount for the 2004 election cycle.
When MoveOn turned its focus to Gulf War II, its membership skyrocketed. It now has more than 1.4 million members and has become a formidable force, as evidenced by the success of their recent primary.
With the bulk of the American press hopelessly corrupt and servile, the Internet offers a way to break through the information blockade and reach people who have either given up on the political process or have never considered getting involved.
The Dean campaign has used the Internet to organize "meetups," monthly gatherings between Dean supporters and those who haven't committed themselves to a candidate. At a July 2 meetup, tens of thousands of Dean supporters around the country met to write letters extolling the virtues of Dean to Iowans who are likely to participate in the Jan. 19 nomination caucuses - the 2004 campaign kickoff.
All this, of course, has the Beltway Kool Kidz worried.
The Democratic Leadership Council - the Republican wanna-bes who think the only way Democrats can win elections is to be more like the GOP - believe Dean is a dangerous liberal who will get crushed by President Bush. Given that last year the Democrats lost their best chance to gain control of Congress by following the GOP-lite strategy, the DLC's complaints ring hollow.
The Washington press corps think that Dean is not deferential enough to them. Consider that after Dean was ambushed by Tim Russert on "Meet The Press" on June 22, Dean's fundraising numbers shot up. This happened while the press churned out dozens of stories about what a lousy performance Dean gave on the program and how it showed he was not ready to be considered a serious candidate.
The people apparently see things differently. Given how deeply in the tank the American press is for President Bush and how feckless the Democratic Party establishment is in coming up with an effective strategy to beat Bush in 2004, Howard Dean - and to a lesser extent, Dennis Kucinich - are seen as real alternatives to the GOP-lite Lieberman, the wishy-washy Gephardt, the opportunistic Kerry and non-entities like Graham and Edwards.
The Kool Kidz might not like it, but the rules of the game are starting to change. Thanks to the Internet, the people are starting to have a say in the early stages of the 2004 race and this development should not be ignored.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).