Trident Booksellers & Café is located within walking distance of John Kerry's residence, so you might expect a gathering of his supporters to fill the small shop. Especially since this was a MeetUp -- arranged through MeetUp.com, which former Vermont governor Howard Dean's campaign has used to recruit thousands of followers. So the seven Kerry fans who came to Trident last Thursday evening couldn't hide their disappointment. (Actually nine showed up, but two well-groomed thirtysomething buddies left quickly, apparently having anticipated more of an opportunity to MeetUp with single women.) Trident's wait staff was also surprised by the poor attendance; more people than this had come to an atheists MeetUp the previous week, and even a recent MeetUp of witches had seen a better draw.
Rating the sites
To date, most of this election cycle's talk about political Internet use has centered on Dean and the money his campaign has raised through its Web site. His is the latest in a string of well-reported Web successes, all of which have to do with raising money, and all of which share a common anti-establishment thread. In 1998, Jesse Ventura's independent gubernatorial campaign raised about a third of its roughly $150,000 in donations through the Internet. McCain raised $1 million in 24 hours through his Web site after emerging as the leading challenger to George W. Bush in the 2000 primaries. Angry Bush supporters (or, perhaps more accurately, Clinton/Gore haters) gave $2.4 million through a Web site to help fund the Florida-recount battle in 2002. Now Howard Dean has tapped this vein with his "outsider" campaign for the Democratic nomination.
"Howard Dean was tailor-made for the Internet," says Jeffrey Stanger, principal at political-consulting firm NetCampaign, which recently signed on to do some work for Dean's campaign. "He has picked a strategy that fits his campaign. A candidate who has many years' experience in the Senate might not want to take the same approach."
Just a few years ago, presidential candidates' Web sites were at best functional, and certainly not engaging. None of those campaigns recognized the many potential advantages of the Internet, say Stanger and others in the business.
Most major candidates today do more on the Internet, and do it better, than any previous election campaign (see "Rating the Sites,"). And yet most of their Web efforts end up -- like Kerry's August 28 MeetUp -- being treated as pale imitations of Dean's. "The negative impact of McCain's success was that politicians saw the Web as solely a fundraising tool, rather than devoting money to it as a campaign marketing tool," says Stanger.
But the other well-established candidates for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination have needs quite different from Dean's. Kerry, for instance, would clearly like to counter his image as stiff and dry; his site (newly redesigned for the official launch of his candidacy this week) tries to do this by greeting users with rotating images of Kerry on his motorcycle and as a soldier. Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt's site tries to sell the reader on the candidate's broad, national appeal, by displaying lots of supporter testimonials and offering a button to click to find out why Gephardt -- and Gephardt alone -- can win the necessary electoral votes to beat Bush. North Carolina senator John Edwards, who needs to increase his visibility, has a Web site that emphasizes campaign events.
These days, most candidates use the Internet to inform voters of their policies on key issues, recruit campaign volunteers, collect information about supporters for use during fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts, and enhance other nonvirtual campaign efforts.
Much of this year's virtual campaigning was tested in 2002. By that election cycle, political-consulting firms had rolled out products and services, webmasters had developed fresh ideas, and some candidates and campaign managers were willing to give it all a try in the relative quiet of a non-presidential-election year. Now the best Internet political designers of 2002 are working, with much bigger budgets, on presidential campaigns. George Bush placed Rebecca Donatelli (lead Internet consultant to McCain for President) and her award-winning Hockaday Donatelli Campaign Solutions firm in charge of the Bush/Cheney re-election site. Gephardt's webmaster is Emilienne Ireland, president of Campaign Advantage, winner of a Pollie Award from the American Association for Political Consultants for Best Congressional Web site of 2002. Joseph Lieberman recently plucked 2002 Pollie winner Mike Liddell, of Campaign Momentum, to serve as his director of Internet strategy. Edwards -- the youthful candidate -- hired as webmaster the youthful Aaron Myers, just three years out of college but already a veteran of campaigns for Tom Harkin, Andrew Cuomo, and Al Gore.
All the campaigns accept contributions through their Web sites, but it would be a mistake to see fundraising as the sole measure of a site's success. Dean and McCain, who stood outside traditional party-financing channels, needed fast money from small donors. Candidates like Kerry and Gephardt, who can arrange $1000-a-plate dinners, can afford to view the Web site as an expense rather than as an income generator -- an expense that serves as a marketing and coordination tool.
"Everybody has to have a Web site and send e-mail. After you do those basic things, you need to have a strategy that reflects the candidate," says the Lieberman campaign's Liddell. For the Connecticut senator, fundraising is secondary to showcasing specific issue positions, Liddell says. "He already has the name ID, but people don't necessarily know him on the issues."
Presenting information on the candidate ( i.e. , marketing the product) is the Web's most obvious use, and the earliest political Web sites did little more than provide information about the candidate to those who came looking. And they did it surprisingly poorly. A Pew study in late 2002 found that only 55 percent of people seeking political information online said they were able to find what they needed -- compared to 78 percent of those seeking health information and 80 percent seeking information from government entities.
The 2004 campaigns have greatly improved their approaches, however, by organizing material according to issue topics and listing comparisons in graphic form. "Information available on the Internet is huge," says Jonathan Karush, president of Liberty Concepts. "Where else does a busy person go to find out where a candidate stands on the issues?"
Information is all well and good to the voters, but to a campaign manager, the most important thing in the world (aside from donations) is campaign volunteers, says Karush. A Liberty Concepts project demonstrated the potential to link Internet connectedness with action: It created the vote-exchange site through which 11,000 people arranged to swap Ralph Nader votes for Al Gore votes in the close New Hampshire election.
"When used properly and promoted aggressively, the Internet will draw in the volunteers," Stanger says. "Ideally, you're guiding people from online to offline activities." One way to do this is by coordinating Web content with campaign activities. This Tuesday, Joe Lieberman rolled out his health-care policy to the press. That same day, the Web site debuted a link to Lieberman's special health-care site. No coincidence, that. Dean's campaign carefully coordinated his Web site's front page with his "Sleepless Summer" tour, both to build up audiences and to encourage donations.
At the trident Café MeetUp for Kerry, initial disappointment over the poor turnout shifted quickly into camaraderie. After the obligatory Bush-bashing, the eclectic septet dissected the politics of the nomination campaign and discussed plans to volunteer their time together for the Kerry campaign. They exchanged names and e-mail addresses and talked about sharing rides up to New Hampshire to help pass out leaflets.
None of them had brought the Kerry Web site's suggested MeetUp agenda, and although all of them visit the site for campaign updates, none of them is entirely wowed by it. The site's attempt to involve people by hosting a weekly chat led by the campaign webmaster drew only faint praise from Matt Frank of Chelsea. "It'll be better once they know more what they're trying to do with it," he says.
Nobody denies that Kerry's site is informative and chock full of videos and other good stuff. But in the key nebulous area of "creating community," something's been missing so far. "Kerry's blog has gotten panned," says Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the Daily Kos, one of the most popular liberal political blogs. "He basically puts press releases up there."
The Kerry campaign has heard the news about Dean's Internet community and wants a little of that magic. "It's your website," the front page says. But while everybody talks about creating a dialogue between the campaign and the visitor to the Web site -- something impossible through other media -- it's not easy to accomplish. Gimmicks prevail -- many swiped from various 2002 campaign sites, says Stanger -- and anything that pops up at one site quickly appears in similar form at the others. Gephardt's been asking people to submit their true-life situations to his "Virtual Kitchen Table"; Lieberman's site currently asks readers to e-mail questions to help the candidate prepare for the September 4 debate. Several candidates' sites now feature pictures, names, and quotes from "real people." Kerry's site encourages the user to join the "Kerry Core," which establishes a personal Web site linked to the campaign, from which the supporter does outreach to friends. The Lieberman campaign's Liddell says he is planning to launch the same feature, with a different name, later on in the race.
Many of the best ways to draw users into a Web community, however, give them a sense of control, and that's tough for campaigns to swallow. "Most campaigns are all about control," says Karush. He convinced a congressional candidate to take some risks in 2002, including posting an unmoderated town forum that let people say negative things about the candidate. It caused some internal discomfort among the campaign staff, but the candidate won.
"We don't want the site to be just a campaign commercial that's just a little more developed. Not just stay on message, stay on point," Karush says. Don't hold your breath waiting for a major presidential campaign to buy fully into that philosophy.
In fact, campaigns see in the Internet an uncontrollable explosion of information and opinion. Aside from Dean, whose campaign manager, Joe Trippi, has courted the blogger community from the get-go, the presidential candidates don't have much interest in influencing the blogosphere, says the Daily Kos's Moulitsas. A Dean supporter, Moulitsas gets 40,000 unique visits to his site a day, yet none of the campaigns responds to his postings, suggests topics, feeds him information, invites him to tag along on the campaign, or does any of the other things they do with mainstream writers. "How you treat bloggers matters," he says. Steve Soto, of the Left Coaster blog, receives no contact from the campaigns -- even that of Kerry, the candidate he currently supports.
Keeping track of bloggers, and cyberspace in general, is important so that campaigns can counter misinformation quickly before it spreads. Karush says that during the 2002 race, an opposing candidate set up an attack Web site that slandered his candidate, Maine congressman Mike Michaud. Michaud's campaign set up a separate site of its own specifically to rebut the false charges.
Moulitsas believes that Trippi's early outreach efforts resulted in support from many bloggers like himself -- and less Dean-bashing from non-supporters -- and thus fueled the online community's pro-Dean stance.
Another popular blogger, Oliver Willis of Dedham, originally supported John Edwards and even established a separate pro-Edwards blog site. After the campaign repeatedly rebuffed his entreaties for information and support, however, Willis became so disgruntled that he stopped the blog, and has since switched his support to Dean.
Of course, nobody really knows whether blogger outreach results in something tangible -- ultimately, votes. But, as one political Internet consultant working for a presidential candidate admits, nobody has proven that anything they do on the 'Net results in more votes.
What is clear is that much of the Web payoff will actually come much later, not from what users see on the sites now, but from what's happening behind the scenes. Much of the gimmickry of the candidates' Web sites is really intended to gather supporters' information into databases. Candidates love databases of contact information for the kinds of motivated, supportive individuals who visit their sites, says Stanger. They can use that data later for fundraising appeals, targeted mailings, and ultimately get-out-the-vote drives.
"You use any gimmick to get people's name and information," says Karush. John Kerry's Web site, for example, is running a contest to win a day spent campaigning with the candidate. To enter, you fill in an online form with your name, address, phone number, and e-mail information. "I guarantee they'll all get a fundraising call when things get hot," Karush says.
Lieberman's site recently debuted a "Join Joe's Green Team" button that leads people into a special environmental section of the Web site -- after they fill in a form to join the team. "When people come and sign on, we mark them as interested in environmental issues and send them targeted e-mails," says Liddell.
That explains the big "Join the Other 216,606 Kerry Online Supporters!" button on www.johnkerry.com. That's the real online community Kerry's hoping you'll join -- the one that's all about him, not you. Which is exactly what everything in a campaign is all about. The Internet may look a lot snazzier than a phone call or a pamphlet, but it's ultimately just another way to get people looking in the same direction: at the candidate.
David S. Bernstein can be reached at email@example.com.