Photo EssayChris Lilik is a one-man political action committee. Powered by a high-speed computer he assembled himself, the 24-year-old law student at Pittsburgh's Duquesne University is working madly to build grassroots support for the Senate candidacy of Representative Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.). Lilik regularly blasts e-mails to 500 conservative allies on his mailing list, mobilizing them to unseat four-term moderate Arlen Specter for the Republican nomination.
The law student and his friends have led more than 800 people to sign up online for the latest rage in political get-togethers, known as Meetups. That's more Meetup volunteers than any non-Presidential candidate in the entire country. "It's all because of that law student in Pittsburgh," says Toomey's press secretary, Joe Sterns. "We had almost nothing to do with it."
As the Internet Age heads into its third Presidential cycle, the Web is growing into a mighty political tool. Sure, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's Net-powered campaign imploded. But he catapulted from nowhere on the power of new services, from Meetups to Web logs, or blogs. Now, savvy politicians of all stripes are busily revamping their tech operations in hopes of replicating Dean's success -- especially the $19 million he raised in online contributions. They're hurrying to build e-mail lists, equipping Web pages to accept contributions, and racing to place fund-raising ads everywhere from Google and Yahoo! (YHOO) to influential partisan blogs such as the liberal Daily Kos and conservative InstaPundit.com.
Dean's tumble sure didn't stop Representative Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) from hiring Convio Inc., the Austin (Tex.) company that supplied the software the Dean campaign used to manage its site. She asked for a heaping helping of the same magic and is even going one step further, building a TV studio in her office for Web commercials. "We'll cut different commercials for seven targeted audiences and e-mail them out every week," says Hal Weatherman, Myrick's chief of staff.
The Net is not only accelerating the speed of politics but also altering its dynamics. Power in the networked world is diffused. A mere decade ago, an eager volunteer like Lilik would have depended on distant campaign staff for pamphlets, bumper stickers, and marching orders. Now, the Web is allowing him and other Net activists to take control of campaigns, build advocacy groups, and raise money. In three weeks in February, a Washington political consultant named John Aravosis gathered 20,000 supporters and raised more than $23,000 for a campaign against the proposed Constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. "You have to decide how to use the Internet to drive [the] candidate [you're targeting] crazy," he says.
Aravosis' movement is a political gnat. But those tiny forces can grow quickly into thundering giants with power to match large unions and entrenched lobbies. Consider MoveOn.org. Last year, the liberal advocacy group helped organize the largest antiwar rallies in history, with some 10 million protesters around the globe. Now, the political arm of the Berkeley (Calif.) organization, with its 2 million e-mail members, is running a $10 million TV ad campaign against President George W. Bush. It features spots produced and e-mailed to MoveOn by its members. In early March, Bush's team challenged the legality of the ad hoc ads by MoveOn and other groups, saying they represent an end run around new campaign-finance regulations.
AS THE LAWYERS LOCK HORNS, BOTH THE President and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, his presumptive Democratic rival, are crafting their own Web strategies. Kerry, who met with Dean on Mar. 10, is trying to mimic Dean's Internet success, welcoming bloggers and encouraging thousands of volunteers to sign up on the Web for Meetups. And his approach is starting to pay off. His campaign raised an average of $1 million a day online in the 10 days following Super Tuesday and plans to double the take by Mar. 26.
Still, President Bush holds a strong tech lead. The Republicans have a 3-to-1 edge in e-mail addresses and a finely tuned Web site aimed at organizing rather than fund-raising. In December, GeorgeWBush.com rolled out a service that rewards people with mugs and signed photos of Bush if they hit targets, such as signing up 10 volunteers or registering five voters. Over the past seven weeks, the number of volunteers has more than tripled, to 280,000. Such tactics have helped the campaign build an e-mail list bulging with 6 million names. Chuck DeFeo, Bush's e-campaign manager, says the Net strategy is focused on getting people "to take action."
Why does the Web matter more this time around? Millions of Americans now spend much of their life online, with 20% of the population using broadband at home. Online payments, once iffy, are now routine. Faster connections support video, which delivers a punchier message than words alone. Perhaps most important are online connections at work. While employees appear to be laboring away, many are perusing blogs, swapping political e-mails, and clicking the contribution button. The strength of phenomena such as blogs and Meetups is startling even their creators. Meetup Inc.'s co-founder and CEO, Scott Heiferman, first viewed the meetings as community get-togethers. "Politics wasn't even on my mind," he says.
Yet for all its power, the Web can be a slick and treacherous course for politicians. Dean is the prime example. In his primary run, he gave the political world a tutorial on networked politics. Early on, it seemed the candidate was in control of the movement. He turned to the network as a virtual ATM machine, raising as much as $1 million a day before crucial election-filing deadlines. But his online strength masked his vulnerabilities in traditional areas, from on-the-ground organizing to TV -- a medium that still reaches far more voters than the Web.
The precise reasons for Dean's fall will be debated for years, but a couple of lessons seem clear today. One is that no amount of Net savvy can save a flawed candidate. Once voters became concerned about Dean's electability, his powerful Web machine couldn't reverse the momentum. Deciphering the strength of an online movement also is a challenge. Enthusiastic support from cyberactivists and bloggers won't necessarily translate into votes, since the tech-savvy may lack the experience or resources to get voters to the polls. Finally, those who live at Net speed die at Net speed. When Dean started to stumble, his would-be supporters found Kerry sites were just a click away. "When things turn, failure cascades through a network," says Jonah Seiger, a political analyst in Washington. "It's hard to control."
Still, Dean's wild Web ride could provide a glimpse of what lies ahead. In a networked political world, much of the power likely will move from the candidates to the groups that surround and sustain them. Digitally connected supporters now wield prodigious communications tools. Social theorist Howard Rheingold predicts that power in the Information Age will coalesce around groups of networked people who organize behind a single idea, from politics to fashion, and connect using the Internet and cell phones. He calls them Smart Mobs, and he sees them starting to take shape. After the Mar. 11 train bombings in Madrid, for example, Spaniards organized protests by sending text messages on phones. While mobile messaging hasn't yet caught fire in the U.S., Americans are creating Net-driven mobs of their own. "If you can match these volunteers, who have self-organized at no cost, with the task that needs to be done, that could be a powerful combination," Rheingold says.
These networked political activists are more likely to find common cause on the left and right extremes, which welcome more passionate messages. Little surprise, then, that Lilik's candidate, Toomey, an uncompromising conservative, has caught fire on the Web. His movement is spawning a host of Web sites and drawing support from national right-wing groups such as RightMarch.com. Specter, a moderate, has only a small Web presence, most of it created by his own staff. Says Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, director of the Republican Main Street Partnership: "I have not been able to locate a single moderate blog."
The rise of the political Web also is starting to tilt the demographics of power. The tech-savvy, many of them young, gain a voice and can move masses. Already, groups such as MoveOn are drawing on their supporters not just for money and political support but also for skills in video, networking, and even software design. In February, MoveOn launched an appeal for "geek organizers." These are people who have mastered Internet technology, understand networks, and have a knack for political organization. Wes Boyd, co-founder of MoveOn, says that while most groups take weeks to create a message and devise the technology to deliver it, a gifted geek can do it in two hours. "It's transforming," he says. The plan is to test the more than 1,000 techies who have answered MoveOn's appeal and assign them to more than 200 like-minded organizations in need of help.
Economically, Internet politics is a no-brainer. Dean's entire Net outlay, including salaries, barely topped $1 million, estimates one former staffer. That means it brought in nearly a dollar for every nickel spent -- a far better return than the 65% average take from a traditional rubber-chicken banquet. What's more, online fund-raising takes no time from the candidate, and it brings in a slew of small contributors who don't expect favors in return. "A lot of candidates are just saying, 'Get this online money flowing,"' says Ravi Singh, CEO of ElectionMall Technologies Inc., a Chicago consultancy.
As the eight-month Kerry-Bush marathon takes off, the President looks to extend his lead on the Net. The Republican Party, with its long history of direct-mail activism, has far more experience breaking its list into target groups, from tax hawks to pro-life activists. The plan is to solidify this base through the long campaign, adding e-mail names and tapping volunteers to call conservative radio stations, write letters to the editor, and knock on doors for the Bush ticket. The Republicans are even experimenting with instant messaging to create up-to-the-second links between small groups, says Max Fose, partner at consultancy Integrated Web Strategy.
The Democrats, by contrast, are struggling to catch up. The party, say insiders, relied heavily on its control of the White House to mobilize supporters during the '90s. When Terry McAuliffe took the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in 2001, he found the tech system "nothing short of shocking," says one DNC tech leader. Kerry, who used the Web far less than Dean, faces a steep learning curve. Kerry has signed up only 33,000 volunteers online, according to his campaign spokeswoman Morra Aarons.
The most innovative Web approaches are likely to come from the networked activists. With campaign-finance reform stemming the flow of so-called soft money to the parties, much of the moolah goes straight to online advocacy groups. They can focus on a single message, a strategy that plays to the Web's strengths. And they innovate constantly. After country singer Willie Nelson released an antiwar song, Aaron Sain, a member of RightMarch.com, recorded Hey Hollywood, a conservative response in praise of President Bush. RightMarch sent a link to the song to its members, and some 20,000 downloaded it.
Even as the Web rises, TV remains the key to reaching undecided voters. According to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, television spending this political season is expected to reach $1.1 billion, dwarfing the millions spent on the Web. Unlike the Net, TV reaches nearly every home in America. It has the power to grab the viewer's attention, and it offers far more compelling video than a broadband Net connection. "TV is still the most efficient. It interrupts you," says Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a research organization in Los Angeles. "But the Internet is far more cost-effective."
AND THE WEB IS GAINING GROUND. WHILE the growth of ad-zapping technology, such as TiVo (TIVO), erodes the value of a TV ad, the Web's reach is growing. With the spread of broadband connections, candidates -- including the vast majority who can't afford to buy time on TV -- can speak directly to voters. "It's a godsend for candidates who literally wouldn't have a voice," says David M. Stone, a film producer in Philadelphia who created Web videos for long shot Garrett Gruener in the California recall election.
The Web also has a legal edge. It's not bound to the same election regulations as TV. A candidate who runs a hard-hitting ad against an opponent on television must take responsibility for it, in his own voice, sometime during the ad. No such requirement yet exists for Net ads. In February, the Bush team circulated its first attack ad against Kerry to its millions of online supporters -- minus the President's voice authorizing the message. The pace of Web ads is sure to pick up, especially in the last two months of the campaign, when political ads by advocacy groups on TV are prohibited. "It's going to be a wild last two months on the Web," says James F. Moore, senior fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
The Web's biggest test is moving people to vote. Votenet Solutions Inc., a Washington (D.C.) software company, has developed an online service to provide would-be voters with the correct registration documents for their state. It sends them e-mails to remind them of registration deadlines and driving directions to their polling places. Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan voter-registration group, has placed the Votenet system on its Web sites -- with dramatic results. "When Yahoo puts our link on its front page, we get thousands a day," says Caty Borum, who runs Declare Yourself's Web site.
Those registering to vote must still climb off their swivel chairs to send in the registration forms, and to vote. That's the last step. And while Arizona and Michigan have experimented with Internet voting for party primaries, no doubt it'll take years of rigorous security tests and impassioned debates before the government entrusts a November race to the Internet. But everything else in politics is fair game. Judging by the activity this year, the Web's political revolution is upon us. By Stephen Baker
With Heather Green in New York and Robert D. Hof in San Mateo, Calif.