“Online Tools for Offline Action”
Neo-Federated Political Associations
“The major difference between Philly for Change and all the other
groups is that we have a local volunteer base. The other organizations
don’t have that.”
—Jen Murphy, Philly for Change chair
The Howard Dean presidential campaign was a watershed moment for the Internet and American politics. Throughout 2003, the former Vermont governor’s insurgent “Internet candidacy” attracted nationwide attention, fueled by an outpouring of volunteer support at local Meetups around the country and recordsetting online fundraising. As the Dean phenomenon crashed in the cornfields of Iowa—a reminder that, as Clay Shirky put it, “support isn’t votes, fervor isn’t votes, effort isn’t votes, money isn’t votes”1—one thing remained clear to campaign professionals: online enthusiasm was no longer limited within the borders of cyberspace. Internet supporters, properly channeled, could be converted into valuable resources such as campaign volunteers, media coverage, and financial support.
After the candidate suspended his campaign, Dean announced that the Dean for America campaign organization would relaunch as a political association, Democracy for America (maintaining the acronym DFA). The unusual structure of the campaign operation—placing authority in the hands of a distributed volunteer apparatus—yielded two particularly valuable resources: a nationwide list of 3.5 million supporters and a host of ongoing “Meetups,” with dedicated and passionate volunteer leadership already in the habit of meeting around the country. The new organization would be headquartered in Burlington, Vermont, mobilizing its national supporter list through MoveOn-style action alerts. The local Meetups would be treated as DFA groups, empowered to set their own local priorities with support from the national organization. In the aftermath of the 2004 election, Dean would be named Chairman of the Democratic National