The web's candidate for President

Sean Dodson and Ben Hammersley on how the net has catapulted Howard Dean from no-hoper to front-runner in the race to challenge George W Bush for the White House

A cold winter's evening, and Colette Stevenson, a 26-year-old charity worker from Kalamazoo, Michigan, is laying a table in a room above a pub in central London.

Like thousands of expats during the holiday season, she prepares plates of chocolate chip cookies and other things that remind her of home, but this festive supper is a little different. It might not look like it, but Stevenson is preparing the ground for a new kind of political meeting.

The gathering is in support of Howard Dean, the insurgent democratic candidate in the US elections. Stevenson's party calls themselves Generation Dean UK - a loose affiliation of "students and young professional supporters of Howard Dean and their friends". Although this kind of meeting is still a rarity in London, it is one of thousands of such groups taking the US political scene by storm. And they are all thanks to a web site,, which was originally planned to help bring together reading circles and foreign language groups. is like an internet chat-room without the chat. Like a chat-room, it aggregates discussion topics, so there are sections dedicated to Harry Potter or learning Spanish. But the chat takes place in the real world, in the form of monthly events. And what makes Meetup different from, say, Friends Reunited, is the way it has been adopted by political interest groups, especially Dean's supporters.

This time last year, Howard Dean was the nowhere man of the presidential campaign. The former governor of Vermont, the 49th largest state in the union, was the obscure, last-place candidate. With no real funding, he didn't have union support, had precious few people on the ground, and only 431 registered supporters. Even his own campaign team admit he wasn't registering a blip in the race for the White House. In short, Howard Dean had no chance.

One year later, and Howard Dean is the Democratic front-runner. His chances of making the White House might have been harmed in the past week by the capture of Saddam Hussein, but the transformation in his support remains truly astounding.

By early December, more than 530,000 Americans had registered as active supporters, and millions of dollars had flowed into the Dean coffers, independent of the Democratic party's own fundraising apparatus.

He has close to 10 times the war chest of the other candidates for the Democratic nomination, yet is spending far less than his network-free opponents are being forced to. How has he managed it? Central to the transformation of Howard Dean is the power of the internet and how both his campaign team and supporters have embraced it.

In dark, rainswept London, thousands of miles from the physical campaign trail, the Generation Dean party is just one example of this new networked power in politics.

"The whole Dean thing is growing exponentially," explains Stevenson, as she arranges plates of turkey stuffing and thick wedges of key lime pie. "I think there is this feeling that Bush needs to be stopped at all costs and there were a lot of young Americans looking for an alternative," she says. "Meetup has provided a starting point for people to get involved in politics again, in a new way. It's important that these meetings are fun if they are going to engage with people and stop all this political apathy."

US political pundits are calling the Meetup phenomenon "peer-to-peer politics". Chris Suellentrop, of Slate, has even likened the Dean campaign to Napster, describing it as a "force that enables the internet to upend an entire industry, threatens to transform the way it collects money, and opens the eyes of the average person to yet another way to use the net." Others have said that the internet is doing for Dean what television did for JFK in 1960.

Myles Weissleder, vice president of, adds another spin. "The internet kick-started a political campaign. But many believe that it wasn't that the Dean campaign found the internet. It was the internet who found them," he says.

The marriage between Dean and the net has pragmatic roots. William Finkel, a young New Yorker working for, was looking for a presidential campaign that would embrace his company. He approached Jerome Armstrong, a political blogger, after being rebuffed by John Edwards' campaign. Finkel contacted Armstrong because he had the most popular left-leaning political blog - - at the time, and Howard Dean had no official blog.

Armstrong had the bright idea of holding a Howard Dean Meetup day. But although he had heard Howard Dean speak, he wasn't part of the campaign team. The thing that sparked Dean's transformation came from outside his campaign team. Armstrong and fellow-blogger Markos Zuniga started talking to Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager about fighting an internet campaign.

"There was a lot of bloggers out there in the middle of 2002 that were reaching out to different campaigns. But the only candidate that embraced them back then was Howard Dean," says Armstrong. The first Dean Meetups took place in February, but they were still far from the stuff of revolution. A mere five meetups took place, attracting a few hundred political enthusiasts. But in the following month, something extraordinary happened. The bloggers got hold of it. The word went around, and by March, all hell was about to break loose.

The second Dean Meetup day, in March, saw 79 meetings taking place in 14 US cities. In New York City, 200 people were expected to turn up at the Essex Lounge, a trendy bar in the Lower East Side. More than 500 people turned up, with more locked outside. Since then, the Dean Meetups have continued to grow, breaking out of the major cities and engaging with a part of the US electorate that was thought to have given up on politics.

As interest in Dean was mounting, Armstrong and Zuniga continued to promote the idea on their blogs. Another left-leaning political blogger - Mathew Gross - walked into the Dean headquarters and convinced Trippi to let him start an official blog.

Some say the turning point was the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in February, where Dean denounced the drive to war in Iraq and accused fellow Democrats of failing to stand up to the president. Dean had been receiving 50 emails per day before the speech, but suddenly the messages were flooding in.

In one sense Dean had nothing to lose by embracing Meetup. But some have criticised the campaign for preaching to the converted. As JP Gowner pointed out in the Washington Post, the Dean campaign is failing to reach out to new constituencies such as African-Americans and voters in the deep South. Others think that Dean's campaign is so successful simply because Dean appeals to young people and the net appeals to them.

The key question for Dean, however, is whether liberal politicians have the monopoly on internet activism. Dick Morris, Bill Clinton's adviser for 20 years and founder in 1993 of, points out that the Republican party is far closer to the demographic of the American internet user than Democrats have ever been.

"Let's remember," he says, "that the internet is more male than female, more right-wing than left-wing, more upscale than downscale."

"The Republican base is seething with activity, and you can't think of any community that is better connected, and better wired to itself, than the religious community. "The fact is that people who attend church regularly vote Republican by two to one, and those who don't, vote Democratic by two to one."

So while Dean is reinventing popular politics in the US, he may not have much time left out there on his own. Whether the Republican Party can pull itself away from corporate fundraising and embrace individuals is an interesting question. Dean is certainly having no problems there. His supporters are giving consider able amounts of money, with only the prompting of a web site to inspire them to open their wallet.

An example: within only a few minutes of Gore's endorsement, a click-here-to-donate link had appeared on the Dean site, asking readers to "Donate to thank Al". Four days later, more than $500,000 had rolled in from that button alone.

Last weekend, a call for cash to show defiance against some negative television advertising had, in 24 hours, raised $200,000 from 2,500 donors, all via the internet. That negative advertising, incidentally, was funded by a political lobbyist firm working for another, unnamed, Democratic candidate. Dean's rise, and his transformation of politics-as-usual, is worrying many.

Its not just about the money. The Dean weblog has been very effective in compelling people to help their campaign in other ways.

Two months after asking, the Dean site has produced more than 100,000 handwritten letters from supporters in other states to voters in the key Iowa and New Hampshire constituencies. Dean has to win in primaries in those states to get the nomination, and it's looking likely he will: from also-ran to presumptive winner, by the power of the web.

This ability to raise both money and effort from genuine grassroots supporters instead of large corporate interests has changed American politics for ever. Even if he doesn't get the nomination, or if he does, but gets beaten by George W. Bush in November, Howard Dean will have achieved something. He, and his online supporters, will have changed politics forever.


Sean Dodson and Ben Hammersley

The GuardianTramp

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