Supporters of newly anointed Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean like to point out that he's no ordinary politician. He's a doctor, he opposed the recent war in Iraq, and he has been tagged by the press as a fiscal conservative who angered politicians in both parties during his time as governor of Vermont. The Washington Post just called him "flinty," comparing him to the stern yet endearing fictional President Bartlett on "The West Wing." Fitting into the outsider storyline perfectly is the fact that Dean's campaign has relied heavily on the Internet for recruiting and organizing supporters.
"Howard Dean is about changing politics as usual," his website says. "How can you help Howard Dean win this nomination and beat Bush in 2004? Well, you can continue to build the movement over the Internet."
How is Dean using the Internet? His site features a blog on which campaign staffers -- and occasionally Dean himself -- update supporters on the latest activities and candidate appearances. The campaign has also utilized meetup.com to help Dean enthusiasts network with one another. Perhaps most importantly, Dean raised $3.5 million in donations online in the second quarter of the year.
All this activity has media tongues wagging. As Dean's staff remarked in early April, "The press is noticing the online movement for Howard Dean."
"Noticing" is right; the prospect of a progressive "outsider" like Dean harnessing new technologies better than the usual suspects is a story too good to resist. NPR has opined that "Dean's campaign is exploiting the Internet in ways no politician has done before." Time magazine reported in mid-July that the Internet "has handed [Dean] a bonanza of cash and buzz that would make most 1990s dotcom veterans -- and politicians -- weep." And none other than the New York Times recently dubbed him "Howard Dean, Web Master."
The problem with all these stories is that they are more hype than substance. Dean surely is utilizing the Internet better than other campaigns now or before -- but not by much. What's happening is not revolutionary; it's merely a product of political consultants and staffers finally learning how to integrate the Internet into a modern campaign, at a time when a large enough portion of likely voters is online to make it matter.
Anyone who remembers the tech stock bubble of the 1990s knows the media have a hard time distinguishing Internet truth from illusion; everything online has been declared, at one time or another, to be world-changing by an unquestioning press. It is no different with the Web and politics.
The race for a winner in the Internet "primary" begins anew every couple of years. A big story in the 2000 campaign was the online fundraising prowess of Republican presidential candidate John McCain. McCain raised nearly $4 million online in February 2000 alone. Back then -- as today -- the story of an underdog deftly applying a new technology to take on the establishment was hard to resist. After the New Hampshire primary, the Los Angeles Times reported: "The Internet is flexing its newly developed political muscle, potentially transforming the way Americans select their president.... It is because of the Internet and its instant capacity to turn the click of a mouse into the ka-ching of the campaign cash register that McCain now is giving Bush a run for his money." And back in 1998, another outsider candidate was said to have won in large part due to -- you guessed it -- the Internet. In his upset race for governor of Minnesota, former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura's campaign successfully organized supporters and raised money online. Columnist Arianna Huffington opined, "The information superhighway became the Ventura freeway."
So when you read yet another news story about how Howard Dean owes his recent political successes to the Internet, think twice. You have heard it all before.