Grasstech Politicking

Posted July 16, 2003 at 4:50pm

On a stormy Wednesday evening in early July, more than 150 supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean flocked to Dupont Circle’s Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge, where many spent the next two hours drafting letters extolling their man to Iowa voters.

A similar scene was repeated last week when about 80 Wesley Clark enthusiasts crammed into the Luna Books & Coffeehouse on P Street Northwest, breaking into “platoons” to discuss ways of sparking a Clark candidacy.

Both events took place thanks to Meetup.com, a Web site that bills itself as “a free service that organizes local gatherings about anything, anywhere.”

Although in existence for just a year, the site — which facilitates get-togethers for everything from vampires to knitting groups — has attracted national attention thanks to its ability to rally the troops for the various individuals who would be president.

And the recent launch of meet-up groups for supporters of several Senate incumbents including Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), as well as for gubernatorial candidates, will likely only increase its profile as a political player.

In the Groove

From the outset, Dean has been the unrivaled king of the Meetup.com presidential gatherings. His 60,000-strong group of supporters far outstrips that of his closest competitor, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has more than 6,000 Meetup members. (Beyond his meet-up gatherings, Dean’s Web-savvy campaign netted him first place in the Moveon.org Democratic primary last month and $700,000 in online campaign contributions in one day.)

“We were the first people to call them and want to do something with Meetup,” said Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, who formalized an agreement with Meetup.com earlier this spring. “I find it amazing that it took the other campaigns six months to realize that they should be doing it.”

Meetup.com, like the rest of the Internet, is “one of the first places you can build organization” for a successful campaign, Trippi added. The emergence of the Internet as a major player in presidential elections, he asserted, will alter future elections in the same way the televised Kennedy-Nixon debate dramatically transformed the political terrain more than 40 years ago.

In Washington, for example, the Dean meet-ups helped facilitate the formation of another group, DC for Dean. After announcing DC for Dean’s formation at a meet-up at Hawk ‘n’ Dove restaurant in May, the group signed up 50 individuals, said coordinator Pat Johnson. Since then, DC for Dean — whose members frequently lead area meet-ups — has ballooned to nearly 300 members.

The predominantly white, professional 20- and 30-something crowd that thronged to the Dean meet-up at Visions earlier this month appeared drawn, in part, by the campaign’s cutting-edge approach.

“I’ve never been so passionate about a political campaign,” said 19-year-old David Singerman, a former intern for Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.). “We finally have a campaign that knows how to use the Internet. … It’s really a 21st century campaign.”

As if to underscore the technological acumen of Dean supporters, Rob Gilligan — a 35-year-old who does software testing for AOL Time Warner — pulled out his Sony Cyber-Shot digital camera to show off photos from a recent Dean event he’d attended for young professionals at the Capital City Brewing Company on Massachusetts Avenue Northeast. “That’s classic,” he beamed, pointing to a snap of the former Vermont governor pumping his arms in the air.

“It’s interactive politics at its best,” gushed Marshed Zaheed, an attorney and political consultant who once interned for Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). “I really liked what I saw here today.”

Attendees at the Clark meet-up — which brought out everyone from a retired colonel to a former chairman of the Ward 6 D.C. Republican Committee to the spokesman for Dr. Steven Hatfill, the scientist the Justice Department has fingered as “a person of interest” in the ongoing investigation of the 2001 anthrax mailings — were equally enthusiastic about the service’s potential.

“We’re attracting people from across the spectrum,” said DraftWesleyClark.com co-founder John Hlinko, referring to Meetup’s importance to their effort. “I’m shocked and awed that it’s taken off like it has.”

The Contenders

Dean and to lesser degrees Kerry and Clark supporters have parlayed the service into a valuable organizational tool, but not every candidate has attracted large numbers of backers via Meetup.

Currently, the only campaigns with a formal relationship with the service are Dean and Kerry’s. But the site hopes to have something official with the campaigns of the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) very soon, said Meetup’s Vice President for Communications Myles Weissleder. Draft Wesley Clark also has an arrangement with Meetup.com, but Clark remains undeclared.

Anyone can start a Meetup group at no cost. However, the $2,500-a-month “Trippi Special” — named for the Dean campaign manager — allows campaigns to customize aspects of their candidates’ Meetup sites and add features offering supporters the option to give the campaign access to their e-mail addresses, among other benefits.

Although the Dean and Clark Washington, D.C., meet-ups drew healthy turnouts in early July, those for Democratic presidential aspirants Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) were canceled throughout the country, meaning fewer than five individuals RSVPed, Weissleder said.

Turnout for Kerry — whose campaign just recently inked a deal with the service — is still to be determined because the campaign requested that the date for the Massachusetts Senator’s July meet-up be moved to the end of the month.

Cancellations can lead to embarrassing press for those candidates whose supporters fail to show.

After the Gephardt no-go last week, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the Drudge Report Web sites all posted items implying that the less-than-stellar turnout was related to Gephardt’s inability to rally supporters — which, in turn, prompted Meetup to issue a statement disavowing any official arrangement with the campaign.

The Gephardt campaign said it has no plans to formalize its relationship with the service.

“It wasn’t worth our money,” said spokeswoman Kim Molstre, adding that the fact that Meetup first tried to charge the campaign $10,000 a month for the added features before settling on the $2,500 figure did not inspire confidence.

A meet-up for President Bush last week at Hawk ‘n’ Dove showed nine confirmed attendees, although no recognizable group had materialized at the popular Capitol Hill hang-out as of 7:30 p.m., a full half hour after the event’s scheduled starting time.

Even so, Weissleder said, Bush would likely generate higher levels of support “if he started talking about it,” as does Dean, who seldom misses an opportunity to plug the site.

Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for Bush-Cheney ’04, said the campaign is focused on getting its Web site up and running and had no comment regarding plans to more actively utilize Meetup.com in the future.

“We are working on different calendars than some of the other campaigns,” Ronayne said.

Beyond the presidential contenders, the nonpartisan service appears to have hit more of a nerve among progressives and lefties than with the neoconservative, right-of-center contingent. Of the 15 “Top Topics in Politics & Activism” listed on the site, all but three are currently left-leaning groups.

“It’s easy to say at this point in time that the left has gravitated to our service a lot quicker than the right has,” conceded Weissleder, who noted the service has meet-ups for right-leaning types such as fans of conservative pundit Ann Coulter, gun rights and tax reform. And although Meetup.com — which currently has more than 440,000 members belonging to some 1,400 topic groups — is hardly a bellwether for the population at large, Weissleder maintains it is only a matter of time before the site will be used as a benchmark for broader national trends.

“Once we have a couple of million people in the system we can be used as a barometer,” he asserted.