Online Political Campaigns Move Into the Real World
When Tom Matzzie, the Washington director of MoveOn.org, stood up to deliver a short announcement at a recent meeting at Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C., there was a scattering of adoring applause for him among the 50-odd members of the liberal online activist group who had showed up to the event.
"They've never seen him before," explained a consultant to the group sitting against the wall. "They've only seen his E-mail."
Such is the nature of "netroots," the ground-up swelling of online political activity that took off in the last presidential election, briefly crowning its most ardent evangelist, Howard Dean, as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
Most Internet relationships never find a wormhole out of cyberspace. But as any Dean alumnus will testify, it takes more than an army of central processing units to elect a president. Increasingly, campaigns and interest groups with large followings on the Internet are urging members to leave the proverbial basement.
Tuesday night's MoveOn event in Washington was one of hundreds held concurrently across the country as part of the organization's first "virtual town hall meeting," this one focused on Iraq. In a testament to how badly politicians want to court this online community, every major Democratic presidential candidate agreed to answer questions submitted by members.
But the event at Ben's Chili Bowl served as a stark reminder that the movement can't reach everyone. The establishment, founded in 1958 in the heart of the capital's artsy Shaw neighborhood, was a standby of the civil rights movement. Co-owner Nizam Ali, whose parents founded the diner, remembers the days when two people talking politics could drown out the restaurant. It's a far cry from the 50 people sequestered in the back room quietly listening to audio from the candidates. (MoveOn wanted to do video but couldn't work out the technology in time for the event.)
A May 2006 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that while broadband Internet access is rapidly proliferating, it still reaches fewer than half of all households and only a quarter of rural households.
The Democrats got out in front of this movement and dominated the early scene, much as conservatives have ruled the radio waves in recent years. In part, strategists for both parties say, this is because of a fundamental difference in philosophy.
Both the Republican National Committee and GOP presidential candidate John McCain are capitalizing on the popularity of social networking sites like MySpace to help spread their messages through cyberspace. Users can create a personal page with either MyGOP or McCainSpace and organize fundraisers, recruit volunteers, blog about the cause, and so on.
Unlike MySpace, however, the "eCampaigns" for both camps monitor all content that comes through the sites to make sure it's within the realm of their message. RNC Press Secretary Tracey Schmitt said they approve roughly 80 percent of the content, while Christian Ferry, who oversees McCain's online efforts, said the amount of content they reject is fairly low.
MoveOn.org, by contrast, is highly decentralized, to the point that a little chaos becomes part of the grass-roots aesthetic. It also has several orders of magnitude more members.
But the purposeful lack of oversight doesn't always win MoveOn a lot of good PR. Most infamously, it sponsored a contest before the 2004 presidential election called "Bush in 30 seconds" in which users were invited to create and submit 30-second spots about the president. Two of those spots directly compared the president to Adolf Hitler.
On the other hand, too much of a stranglehold on content isn't good for discourse, argues Michael Turk, a former director of eCampaigns for the RNC. Rather than review every sentence and every photo, he argues, parties and campaigns can get away with only monitoring sites with a lot of traffic. Allowing users to flag content that they find offensive can also help monitor discourse, he says.
"There are a huge number of college Republicans and young Republicans who have grown up with this technology," he says. If they are successfully engaged, "you've got this huge vibrant online community that can work for you. But you can't have a vibrant community when the content is regulated."
MoveOn.org may be the most successfulif at times controversialonline site out there; conservatives are still searching for an answer.
Says Ferry: "The Republicans are catching up in this space."