What Webs They Weave

Posted July 23, 2003 at 5:41pm

When he heard that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s (D) second-quarter fundraising total included almost $4 million gathered on the Internet alone, Phil Noble’s first thought was: “The revolution continues.”

“It is perhaps only 11 o’clock on the first day of the revolution, but it is still the revolution,” he said.

Noble, founder of Politicsonline.com, a Web site that offers an array of Internet tools for political campaigns and tracks developments in online politics, said the revolution led by presidential candidate Dean is also an evolution, a natural progression in the way campaigns use the Internet.

It started in the 1996 cycle, he said, when campaigns were proud to have any kind of Web site at all. In the 1998 cycle, campaigns used the Web to convey basic information to voters. But in 2000, Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign showed the political world how to raise money on the Internet. And now Dean’s ability to raise significant sums of money — and energize and mobilize an equally impressive number of grassroots supporters — is the next milestone.

Noble said he is not surprised that Dean made the breakthrough, noting that former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (I) also used the Web to great effect.

“Outsiders, nontraditional candidates, are the innovators,” he said. “The medium is custom-made for nontraditional candidates with a strong message and a latent base of support.”

Noble said someone was bound to capitalize on the Web’s potential: “There is no tool, there is no technique, that the Howard Dean campaign has that isn’t available to every person on the face of the earth.”

The buzz surrounding Dean’s fundraising and people-raising achievements has propelled him into the top tier of Democratic presidential contenders — his overall take during the second quarter was a surprising $7.5 million, placing him first among the nine-person Democratic field for the quarter. But it has also, in the view of the Dean campaign command, accomplished something more. Now, Dean operatives are peppered for advice by other political campaigns around the country.

“Most people spent the first two quarters laughing at us, saying that we were wasting our time [by placing so much emphasis on Internet organizing],” said Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager. “They’re not laughing anymore.”

While other politicians are reaching out to Dean — “Lots of people who we thought weren’t interested in this candidacy now are,” Trippi said — it is difficult to say whether that will translate into additional support, particularly from the political establishment. Trippi said he is careful to remind callers that the medium is not, exclusively, the message.

“A Web site’s not wallpaper,” he said. “You can’t just put up a Web site and expect that that’s it. I’m not sure we could make it work for [Sens.] John Kerry [D-Mass.] or Joe Lieberman [D-Conn.] or [Rep.] Dick Gephardt [D-Mo.]. Howard Dean has a lot to do with it.”

In fact, Convio Inc., the Austin, Texas-based software company that is powering Dean’s Web site, is also working for the Kerry and Lieberman campaigns.

Company officials did not supply this information to Roll Call; they are not authorized to discuss their work for the other two presidential campaigns. But Vinay Bhagat, founder and chief strategy officer for Convio, said it is not unusual for one Web vendor to be working for political competitors — he likened it to Boeing supplying the same planes to several airlines.

But Dean’s Web success is clearly a point of pride for Bhagat, who found the inspiration to start his company when he was volunteering for a public television station during a fundraising drive and got tired of filling out pledge cards by hand.

“They’ve become a tremendous showplace for what we do,” he said.

Asked what the Dean campaign can do for an encore, technologically speaking, Trippi replied, “We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing.”

But Bhagat said the Dean campaign will continue to refine its online fundraising by enabling 2,000 volunteer fundraisers to create their own personal pages on the campaign Web site. This will allow them to tailor fundraising appeals to friends, family and colleagues.

“It puts the fundraising tools in the hands of the grassroots constituents,” Bhagat said.

Meanwhile, Dean’s other online success, mobilizing thousands of people through the Web site Meetup.com, is also being emulated by other political candidates. His White House opponents — or activists hoping to draft other candidates into the race — were the first to follow suit; and in the past few days alone, perhaps three-dozen Senators and candidates for Senate have also launched Meetup groups.

All the online fundraising and organizing can only help the Democrats, Trippi said.

“This is how you beat George Bush,” he said. “You develop a grassroots campaign that involves people.”

Senate Campaigns Staff Up. Two likely candidates for the Senate from Florida are putting together campaign teams.

Rep. Allen Boyd (D), who is almost certain to become an official candidate if and when Sen. Bob Graham (D) officially signals he will not seek a fourth term, now has a full complement of consultants lined up. Bob Doyle, who will be general consultant and chief strategist to Boyd, said the campaign has turned to veterans of Florida and other Southern campaigns.

Doyle, Boyd’s former chief of staff and manager of his first House campaign in 1996, is president of Sutter’s Mill Fund Raising and Strategy, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm.

Boyd’s current chief of staff, Libby Greer, will take a partial leave of absence to become chief financial officer of the campaign. She is a former finance director of the Alabama Democratic Party.

Rounding out Boyd’s political team will be media strategist Erick Mullen, creative media consultants David Dixon and Rich Davis, pollster Alan Secrest and direct-mail consultant Duane Baughman. Secrest and Baughman have been with Boyd since his first House campaign.

The money team will include D.C. fundraisers Kimball Stroud and Yuichi Miyamoto, Florida fundraising consultant Ben Eley and North Florida fundraising coordinator Betsy Barfield.

Meanwhile, Florida state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd (R), who is looking more and more like he is ready to enter the already crowded Sunshine State Senate contest, has hired two campaign consultants with close ties to Gov. Jeb Bush (R) — suggesting that Byrd may be the Bush family’s chosen candidate.

Karen Unger, who was the manager of Bush’s re-election campaign last year, and Todd Harris, who was communications director, have both signed on to Byrd’s 2004 campaign staff. Unger began working for Bush in 1998 as his Palm Beach and Broward county field director. She also worked in Rep. Clay Shaw’s (R-Fla.) 1994 and 1996 campaigns. Harris was the spokesman for McCain’s unsuccessful 2000 presidential campaign.

Current Leaders, Future Leaders. 21st Century Democrats, the Washington-based Democratic field organization, is in the midst of its 10th annual youth summer speaker series. The program brings influential Democratic leaders to speak to students, interns and Capitol Hill staffers.

Scheduled to speak on July 29: Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and two presidential candidates: the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.).

Scheduled to speak on July 30: Sen. Mark Dayton (Minn.) and David Brock, author of “Blinded by the Right.”

Both programs run from noon to 1 p.m. in Room 106 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.