Guest Opinion

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Internet campaigning

Presidential hopeful Howard Dean is using the Internet more effectively than Nigerian entrepreneurs and Viagra manufacturers combined. He raised $1 million in a four-day period last month. His campaign expects to raise $10.3 million in the three months ending Sept. 30, the most any Democratic presidential candidate has ever raised in a similar period with the exception of Clinton, who was a sitting president when he did it in 1995.

While all of that is impressive, I am more struck by something else. Dean is harnessing the vastness of the Internet to shrink a presidential campaign down to the size of a neighborhood bar. He might very well be reinventing modern democracy.

The irony is that the Internet, the ultimate in cold technology, is facilitating the most personal campaign in history. Instead of using pamphlets to deliver his message, Dean has people. Instead of mailings, Dean has meetings, like the one I attended in a neighborhood hangout where dogs lie under their owners' barstools and kids play pool for $8 an hour while their parents eat in peace.

On this night, I watched people sit in whatever chairs were empty, introducing themselves to others at their table, ordering a burger or a salad, and talking about how they hadn't joined a political campaign since the Carter campaign or since McGovern and how they were so sick of what was happening in the country.

On this night about 70 people have shown up, filling every barstool and table, forcing Ted himself to fetch more chairs from the pool room. Many seemed to have come straight from work. One couple arrived pushing their toddler in a stroller.

About 50,000 personal letters poured into New Hampshire from Dean supporters across the country earlier this season. Polls had Sen. John Kerry leading Dean in June, 25 percent to 22 percent, and now Dean is leading Kerry, 38 percent to 17 percent.

There was a video, in which regular folks explained why they supported Dean ("We need to take our country back!") and Dean explained why regular folks should support him ("We need to take our country back!").

"Old liberals are dying off, folks," I was told by Patricia, a 74-year-old woman in a black baseball cap, black T-shirt and black jeans. "You can't count on us anymore. You guys have to do the work."

A student said he was going to start a Howard Dean club at school. Jane, a middle-aged woman in bright red overalls, explained, "I've been one angry woman since the election in 2000. Dean comes closest to what I believe."

On my way out of the bar, a man in a T-shirt and shorts was coming in. He scanned the Howard Dean placards on the walls and the Howard Dean buttons on everybody's shirts.

"Who," he asked the bartender, "is Howard Dean?"

Ah, so many people to reach, and only 14 months until election day.

Joan Ryan writes a weekly column for Pilot-Tribune readers.