On a balmy August evening, Matthew George -- a park ranger by day -- stands on a chair and calls out to the crowd at a Baltimore brewery: “Welcome to the largest grass-roots campaign in American political history. We have expanded this month to Annapolis, Easton, Prince George's county, Frederick and Columbia all in just one month.”
Mr. George is one of many volunteers supporting Howard Dean, a former governor of Vermont and one of nine candidates competing for the Democratic Party nomination for the U.S. presidency. More than 500 meetings like this one were organized through the Internet and took place in every U.S. state. Five more so-called 'Dean meet-ups' were held overseas for Americans living in Tokyo, London, Paris, and closer to home in Montreal and Toronto.
This evening's task was simple: each volunteer would write a letter to an undecided Democratic Party voter in the state of New Hampshire. Mr. George explains: “Tonight, the letters we are writing will make a tremendous impact on the race in New Hampshire. It is crucial that we make an impact on these two counties of Hillsborough and Strafford. They are divided counties according to the latest polls. Dean does have a slight lead in both those counties, but not by much. So we want to make sure those counties come our way.”
The large group spread across the outdoor deck while the last beams of a setting sun reached their tables. A hush fell over the crowd as they put pens to paper, contemplating what to write to a person whom they've never met.
One of those composing a letter was Elwin Guild, a 58-year-old retired U.S. government employee who, for the last decade, has worked with municipalities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to build open societies. “For the first time in my life, I am politically active,” says Mr. Guild. “This is to me the most dangerous time in our political history. We have an erosion of our civil liberties, and we have an administration that promotes nothing but fear. This is a fear-driven world that is being foisted not just on the American population but the world population.”
Like many of Howard Dean's supporters, Mr. Guild is frustrated with the Bush administration's stance on the war in Iraq, the recent tax cuts and what he considers a unilateralist approach to foreign policy.
Eugene Greene, a 30-year-old African-American data base administrator, came out to learn more about Howard Dean and is encouraged by the enthusiasm of his supporters: “I wrote two letters to two New Hampshire residents. I had no intention of doing anything like that. I told the truth. I told them I was an undecided Democrat who came out to take a good look. I said I can't tell you who to vote for, but I think you should take a good hard look at Dean.”
Elwin and Eugene's letters were added to more than 40,000 others that were written throughout the country that night. The next day the hand-written letters -- a rarity in the age of the Internet and e-mail -- were on their way to New Hampshire mailboxes.
The monthly meetings have not always been so successful. Only eight people came to Baltimore's first Dean 'meet-up' in February. Less than 20 showed up at the May meeting. On this night, about 200 people arrived to support Howard Dean's campaign.
“The numbers for Dean are enormous compared to other candidates,” says University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato. “Howard Dean has harnessed the Internet to rally tens of thousands of supporters. This gives him an early edge over his rivals. Dean has been able to link together people in their homes who might never meet, might never have an opportunity to know the others exist and that's helped to put his organization in all 50 states. Normally, candidates have to wait for people to respond to a direct mail piece or actually to come in directly to the office to volunteer. Most people don't have time for that. This is done at home with a few keystrokes. Dean's advantage is that he is going to have a ready-made group of activists and energized volunteers in all of the states.”
Professor Sabato notes that other candidates have a presence on the Internet but none have hit a fund raising gold mine like Howard Dean.
Carol Darr, Director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University, agrees the Internet has become a powerful tool in the run-up to next year's election.
In addition to sparking a grass roots movement, she says the Internet is helping Howard Dean counter a troubling trend in U.S. political fund raising. According to Carol Darr, today's candidates often depend on what is called 'big money:' “I think it is very undemocratic because 80% of the money in president campaigns comes from people who can afford to give a thousand dollars or more. It doesn't represent plain, ordinary people.”
Professor Darr says that more often special interests are favored by these large donations. 'Big money' accounts for three-quarters of the funding for mainstream candidates Republicans and Democrats.
She says a candidate who depends mostly on 'big money,' is often influenced by those donors once he or she takes office.
But Professor Darr notes that Howard Dean has shown a candidate doesn't have to depend on 'big money.' With the Internet, his campaign has raised more than $10 million with at least three-quarters coming from contributions of $200 or less. Over 50,000 Americans have donated to the candidate via the Internet.
Professor Darr adds that if a candidate receives funding from many sources and a diversity of Americans, he or she can make decisions that are in the best interest of the country as a whole: “When a candidate is not elected to office based on large amounts of big money, he is not beholden to them. So the candidate is freer to make decisions that he thinks are good for everybody.”
University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato believes the Internet will be a basic part of most campaigns in the future. But he offers a warning about candidates such as Howard Dean: “We need to remember that the Internet, the way Dean is using it, only works for candidates who are well to the right or well to the left. Those at the ends of the spectrum are more dedicated to their point of view. They feel strongly about politics. They feel strongly about their candidates. They tend to be charged-up. But someone as far to the left as Dean will have great difficulty to win a general election.”
Others question how far left he is and cite a more moderate record as governor. Nearly all agree he has caught many Americans' attention, but can he keep it? On a recent cover of the U.S. magazine Newsweek, a photo of the candidate is framed with the words: Howard Dean, Destiny or Disaster?