Political analysts in the United States say the Internet is emerging as a major tool for candidates campaigning for next year's presidential election. They say the World Wide Web is becoming an important instrument for candidates to raise money, spread their message, create momentum and even help organize campaign strategy. Analysts are always looking for new trends in American politics and the use of the Internet to raise money and manpower has become one of the most noteworthy elements of the current campaign.
Millions of dollars are being raised and tens of thousands of people are organizing hundreds of meetings across the country online, using a medium that appears destined to be a major factor in American politics.
Allan Lichtman, political analyst and history professor at American University said the Internet is now playing a key role in shaping the campaigns of the Democratic candidates seeking their party's nomination to challenge Republican President George Bush in next year's elections.
"I think the Internet has finally arrived as a major tool for campaigners and a major influence on American presidential politics," he said. "We saw glimmers of that in the campaigns four years ago when John McCain, the candidate against George Bush for the Republican nomination for president, was able to use the Internet as an effective tool for fundraising and for getting out his message. We have now seen an expansion of that impact and once again it does seem to be a mechanism that is most useful for kind of a maverick, out of the mainstream candidate, rallying support and raising money in a way that would not otherwise be available to him."
That candidate is Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, and one of nine candidates for the Democratic nomination for president.
While Mr. Dean is not well known compared to other candidates in the race, he shocked many of his opponents by using the Internet to raise more money than any other Democratic candidate in the second quarter of this year.
Professor Michael Cornfield, who specializes in Internet politics at George Washington University, says Mr. Dean appeals to young, liberal voters because he is not a member of the Washington establishment and is willing to take on President Bush by being a vocal opponent of his economic policies and the war in Iraq.
"He sort of fits the character profile of the classic, underdog, insurgent," explained Mr. Cornfield. "He comes from a small state. He was a governor. He talks bluntly and this has a certain appeal to the press and to members of the public.
"That is not just for Democrats," he continued. "There have been insurgent campaigns on the Republican side. Second, Howard Dean was first and foremost of the Democratic candidates who are running for president to criticize President Bush directly for the war and over his economic policies."
Professor Cornfield estimates 120 million Americans have access to the Internet, and about 50 million are regularly online.
Supporters of Howard Dean, including many who are new to American politics, have been drawn together by word spread on the Internet.
With the candidate's approval, thousands of followers are using the Internet to discuss his candidacy, organize campaign activities, raise money and even suggest campaign strategy.
While other Democratic contenders use Web sites for fundraising and signing up volunteers, Mr. Dean has spurned the traditional wisdom that campaigns should be tightly run by experts, supporters carefully coached and candidates repeating only cautiously crafted messages.
The Dean campaign, however, encourages its army of unsupervised strangers that use the Internet to stage events, hand out literature and talk with the news media.
Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, says unlike Mr. Dean, most seasoned politicians are apprehensive about allowing supporters to use the Internet in creative ways that are beyond the campaign's control.
"They do tend to be risk adverse and they like to control their message, stay on message and know where everybody is going to be and exactly what people who are going to be affiliated themselves with the campaign are going to say at any particular time. So there is an element of risk," said Mr. Reeher, who is co-author of the book Click on Democracy: The Internet's Power to Change Political Apathy into Civic Action.
Allan Lichtman of American University says those politicians willing to risk allowing a wide-open Internet campaign can be successful in reaching the small percentage of voters likely to participate in primary elections.
He says more traditional campaign tools, like direct mail and television advertising, are much more expensive than the Internet and generally target specific media markets while online campaigns reach a universal audience.
Mr. Lichtman points out, however, there are still a substantial number of Americans who do not have access to the Internet.
"Now of course there is a digital divide in the United States such that minorities and the less affluent tend to be less able to have contact through the Internet," he said. "But, number one, that gap is beginning to close and, number two, unfortunately, those also tend to be the people who vote least. So in terms of the voting population, particularly the voting population in primary elections, which tends to be a very small segment of the overall population, you can do pretty well in reaching out to the voters."
Analysts say a major reason the Internet is a political phenomena is that it organizes people from the ground up, providing grassroots support for candidates who do not have the name recognition of politicians already on the national stage.
So far nearly 65,000 people have signed up via the Internet on a Web site called Meetup.com to meet with fellow supporters of Howard Dean to help his campaign.
That is about 10 times more potential voters than other Democratic candidates have generated on the site, which has become popular with Internet users to organize meetings of like-minded people.
While analysts say it is to early to know the exact impact the Internet will have on presidential politics, it is clear the medium presents campaigns with a new tool to seek influence with the voters, and a way to reach out and connect supporters who otherwise might never meet.