Dean's greening the Internet

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says some lessons the Howard Dean campaign is teaching aren't being learned.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read
Say all you want about politicians being dumb, but they're definitely not stupid.

With Howard Dean as the proto-role model, no would-be White House contenders of sound mind will ever again dismiss the Internet as a geeky waste of time.

After a brilliant Internet campaign helped propel the former Vermont governor from relative obscurity to front-runner status in the race for Democratic Presidential nominee, all this now seems painfully obvious. But four years ago, the picture was very different.

Then, most candidates' Web sites were uninteresting and largely given over to the usual one-dimensional propaganda that accompanies presidential races. Few professional politicians were thinking about how to use the Internet as an organizing mechanism, let alone as a fund-raising tool.

"The truth is that most of us tried to avoid meeting (about having a Web presence), because none of us had much interest in it," recalled Dan Schnur, a University of California at Berkeley lecturer who directed communications for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. "At the end of a meeting, the question was asked whether we should put out a page for fund raising. We shrugged and said, 'OK. Why not?'"

The answer came when McCain's campaign pulled in some $600,000 in donations in the first 24 hours after going live--a remarkable sum that numbered in the millions by the time the Arizona Senator conceded the race to George W. Bush. That wasn't all.

"The fact that we could visit a city or state where John McCain had never been and had no campaign presence and still be met by several hundred people--that was mind-boggling," Schnur said.

Nobody has fully figured out how to use the Internet as a tool of persuasion.
Of course, compared to what's being done by Howard Dean's campaign this year, all that was the equivalent of rubbing two sticks together to make fire. It beats me whether Dean has more than a Vermont's snowball of a chance at winning the Democratic nomination for U.S. president. But however the race turns out, he has already won bragging rights as being the best Web candidate of all time.

Dean's supporters are undoubtedly wild about their guy, but truth be told, he hails from a tiny state whose biggest claim to fame is the fact that it's home to Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Happily for the Dean camp, size matters not in cyberspace--especially when you can get your message across on a spanking good Web site. The former governor has surrounded himself with a crack team that understands how to use the medium of the Internet as an instrument for communicating and organizing.

That savvy has given his candidacy an out-of-proportion boost, considering his previous status as a relative unknown on the national stage.

Dean is doing well, precisely because he's articulated a message that a lot of frustrated Democrats share, and the Internet has helped deliver that message and organize people.

This is more than just dot-com hype: The Dean team has received more than half of its contributions via the Internet. If that doesn't serve as a wake-up call to future candidates, nothing will.

Still, the political class has been way late to this game. Political pundits have long talked about the transforming power of the medium for disseminating messages. But the establishment still treats the Internet as an afterthought.

Another thing: The Web's greatest political utility is still primarily as a motivational and organizational mechanism. Nobody has fully figured out how to use the Internet as a tool of persuasion. Someone still has to come to a site to hear the message.

To be sure, some advocacy organizations--most prominently MoveOn--have used e-mail alerts to mobilize support. But whatever the advances in "viral marketing," this remains a work in progress.

In all the hubbub over the "revolutionary" potential of cyberspace, it's wise to remember that the Internet is a medium through which to transmit message; it isn't the actual message.