If the Internet is a revolution in the way politics are
conducted, Joe Trippi might be Paul Revere. He made his way through
the presidential primaries with his idea to use the Internet to
strengthen a candidate and connect to voters, all the while
motivating college students and campaign managers alike to use the
Internet.

More than a year later, the campaigns of President George W.
Bush and Democratic Party nominee John Kerry have utilized the web
to reach out to millions of voters and raise some of the $1 billion
that will be spent pursuing the Oval Office this year.

The presidency was the furthest thing from Trippi’s mind
when he got the idea to use the Internet for political
purposes.

“It really started in the mid-’90s. There was this
community forming that was interested in games like
PlayStation,” Trippi said.

One day, the community learned that one of its members, David
Haines, died unexpectedly.

“Someone suggested we take up a collection for an
educational fund for his two kids. It hit me that this community
was doing stuff for this guy they never met that we don’t do
for our next-door neighbor. It hit me that the same thing could be
done for a presidential candidate,” he said.

Trippi went on to become the campaign manager of a then-unknown
Vermont governor running for president — Howard Dean.

The rest, they say, is history.

In the beginning, Dean’s website had only 432 supporters.
The campaign pushed those supporters to find just one more person
to contribute. Nine months later, the roster ballooned to 650,000
supporters. The Dean campaign put a series of smashed fundraising
records under its belt and $50 million in its coughers — all
the result of contributions averaging $77 a person.

How did he do it?

“Word of mouth: it can often be tricking the press to say
‘www.deanforamerica.com.’ It’s guerrilla
marketing. It can be everything from a cartoon to a flash animation
to get people to go back and check where it came from: ‘Hey,
check out this thing from the Dean campaign,’ ” Trippi
said.

Such power can be achieved for as little as the cost of a domain
name, making it cheap enough for college politicos like Business
student Scott Foley, chairman of www.studentsforbush.org.

“So far, feedback has been very positive and there are
many students on campus that just can’t wait to help out with
the campaign. The website serves as just another means to attract
potential Bush supporters and get them involved with our
effort,” Foley said.

For Dean, the vast majority of the $50 million he raised in nine
months came via Internet donations, which were cheaper and quicker
to process than paper checks. The wider field of small donors
brought by web campaigns has yet to get rid of $2,000+ donations,
though.

Such high-end donations bother Trippi.

“(The Internet) is going to do away with them.
There’s no reason to go to folks that make demands on (the
candidate) when you can get just as much from people that want to
make a difference. (Politicians) spend all their time calling
wealthy donors. To get it back in the hands of average Americans,
you get the freedom of the candidates to not be locked up somewhere
making ‘money calls,’ ” Trippi said.

The Kerry camp has taken notice of the web’s power to
raise money.

“Kerry’s campaign has done an amazing job of
harnessing what the Dean campaign started. He’s got a $183
million to Bush’s $228 million. Kerry’s average
contribution is $182,” he added.

Donations of $200 and below commonly come by way of the Web.

Those who contribute less than $200 to the Kerry campaign make
up 32 percent of his total contributors, the Federal Election
Commission reported. By comparison, 26 percent of Bush’s
donors gave less than $200.

One decision by the campaigns that abridged their differences
was the choice to opt out of public funding since the primaries
started.

It’s something the Dean campaign pioneered inside
Democratic circles during the primaries. The decision to opt out
loosened restrictions on the campaign and allowed it to raise more
money than it had thought originally possible.

Trippi thinks that decision changed everything.

“The single most important event in 2003 was when 30,000
Dean supporters voted on the Net to tell Dean to not take public
funds. Four days after they made that vote, Kerry announced he
would opt out too,” Trippi said. He thought that decision
helped save Kerry’s candidacy, allowing the senator to float
a $6.4 million loan to himself. That infusion of cash saved his
broke campaign and helped him win Iowa.

That synergy of fundraising and supporters’ voices gave
rise to communities that felt they were part of the presidential
campaign. By investing money in the Dean campaign, more people than
ever felt they had a share in the rise — and fall — of
a presidential candidate than ever before. The beating heart of
that and many political Web communities are Web logs, or
“blogs” for short.

“Blogging certainly encourages participation and healthy
debate, which is always great for an open democracy. The
disadvantage is when people are reading a blog, they aren’t
out doing something to make a difference, so in the future, we will
try to encourage as much civic participation as possible,”
said Adam Mordecai, a former Dean campaign member and current
webmaster of changeforamerica.com.

If used right, blogs and the websites they belong to may allow a
candidate to achieve a level of intimacy and reach that would have
been unimaginable during Harry Truman’s Whistle Stop Tour or
the tireless stumping of more recent candidates.

Trippi’s hopes for the Internet go beyond running for
president — thinks a future president may use the Web.

“President Kerry may e-mail out to three or four million
Americans that he’s placed a health care plan before Congress
and he wants them to push members to do what needs to be done.
It’s a way the president can build an army to help him pass
it. The thing Congress understands is lots of people and lots of
money. The people aren’t (currently) involved because the
president has no direct way of asking them to get involved,”
Trippi said.

The Internet showed its power with the Dean campaign and was
subsequently used by Bush, Kerry and lesser knowns like Foley and
Mordecai.

But will the Internet be a bigger revolution in politics than
television was half a century ago?

“Definitely. Television is a one-way medium —
there’s no way of people interacting, connecting with each
other,” Trippi said.

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