Weaving the Tangled Web into Political Action

By Hellinger, Dan | St. Louis Journalism Review, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Weaving the Tangled Web into Political Action


Hellinger, Dan, St. Louis Journalism Review


For more than a decade political communications specialists and computer geeks have predicted the Internet would became a major feature of campaigning, but for just as long, candidate websites have been little more than bells and whistles on campaign bandwagons.

Then came Howard Dean, Moveon.com, "meetups" and blogs. Today, no effective campaign can afford not to have a website.

Why this campaign? Why Dean?

The confluence of four factors is at work: the increased percentage of households with Internet access, the anti-war movement, the savvy of the Dean campaign staff and the synergetic way that the Internet can be linked to traditional campaign tactics.

Internet access in the United States has crossed a critical mass threshold. The 2000 census showed that 54 million households (51 percent) had one or more computers in the home. That was up from 42 percent in December 1998, and surely, the trend has continued.

Internet use continues to be skewed by class. Nearly 9-in-10 family households with annual incomes of $75,000 or more had at least one computer, and about 8-in-10 had at least one household member who used the Internet at home. Even among the less affluent, Internet use is growing. Among households below $25,000, nearly 3-in-10 had a computer and about 2-in-10 had Internet access.

The key, however, to effective electronic campaigning is not generating participation on the Internet but using the Internet to generate more traditional forms of political participation. Critical in this respect is that voting, working in campaigns, giving money to parties and candidates, especially in the primaries, is also heavily skewed toward the upper middle class and the wealthy, and grassroots activism is weighted toward the young. In other words, the demographics of Internet access and America's class-skewed culture of participation are synergistic.

In addition, as with other media, political communication via the Internet is a two-step process. Just as newspaper readers tend to influence less informed voters, those who seek public affairs information on the Internet tend to influence not only the less informed but the less connected. The importance of the Internet is not measured merely by census data.

Dean didn't invent Internet campaigning. His innovations have more to do with recognizing the potential of the anti-war movement's use of the Internet and its adaptability to national campaigning. Dean staffers were first and alone in recognizing the potential to capitalize on the work done by Moveon.com, a grassroots Internet organization formed originally to oppose President Clinton's impeachment. Move On used the Internet to gather signatures on an electronic petition urging Congress to censure Clinton for the Lewinsky scandal and then to "move on." Afterwards, Move On itself "moved on" to organize opposition to the war in Iraq. Dean campaigned to win (with a plurality, not a majority) a "primary" that Move On organized over the summer.

It was this campaigning and the existence of an already formidable campaign staff, backed by some early traditional fundraising, which helped Dean win the electronic primary.

Strictly on the issues, he might not have been the favorite. Carol Mosely Braun, Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton are all more closely aligned with the left tilt of Move On members on a number of issues, including gun control and social security. Like Dean, all vigorously opposed the Iraq War early-on. Only Dean, however, was ready to use the Internet to turn a symbolic vote with no impact on delegate counts into a launching point for a campaign with the appearance of a spontaneous movement. He not only had Internet innovators, but he had veterans of past Democratic presidential campaigns ready to raise funds and build a tangible campaign on the ground. The real genius of his campaign is the synergy between these two components. …

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