Niche groups use Web to gain ear of '08 contenders
TORRANCE, Calif. — With no headquarters, no budget, and members who stay in touch mainly over the Internet, Asian Pacific Americans for Progress is no heavyweight in national politics.
But this month, the group of mostly young, liberal voters scored a conference call with Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of former Sen. John Edwards, a top-tier candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
For a half-hour, Mrs. Edwards fielded questions on her husband's views on immigrant visa backlogs, hate-crime laws, and the alleged sexual enslavement of Korean women by the Japanese military during World War II.
"She definitely did some homework," Dennis Arguelles says at a house party in this Los Angeles suburb, where he and five other APAP members listened to her on speaker phone.
The Internet-driven political activism that helped bankroll former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's insurgent 2004 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination is back, in ways that are starting to transcend fundraising.
Groups of voters tethered by little more than a website are drawing campaigns' attention for their numbers and political savvy, not just their dollars.
"The size of an organization's e-mail list will get more attention now than it would have two or four years ago," says Andrew Rasiej, cofounder of TechPresident.com, a website tracking the intersection of presidential campaigns and the Web.
A seat at a big-ticket fundraiser or the ability to raise large sums of campaign cash is under no threat of extinction as the quickest route to face time with a major presidential candidate. But voters uniting under the banner of a website are getting a level of notice – even if still relatively brief – unseen in earlier election cycles.
In recent weeks, four Democratic hopefuls – Senator Edwards, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Sen. Barack Obama, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson – recorded videos detailing their views on the Iraq war for Democracy for America, a largely Web-based umbrella group for some 850 local activist organizations.
Senator Obama taped a nearly six-minute segment reiterating his opposition to the war and praising the group's members. "If all of you are [active and engaged] then I am absolutely confident that over time things will change," he says.
Edwards, in his video, is similarly effusive, calling himself a "huge fan" and thanking members for "extraordinary grass-roots activism and leadership."
A cheap screening
Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America and Howard Dean's brother, says the group is not yet making endorsements, just giving members a chance to vet Democratic hopefuls on one of its signature issues.
"The advantage for us is we get smarter about the candidates and … a certain access without having to spend a gazillion dollars," says Mr. Dean. "The advantage for the candidates is, this is a constituency and [potentially] also a great source of help on their campaign."
In the San Francisco Bay Area earlier this year, a social network of 150 undecided Democratic voters loosely organized over the Internet enticed Edwards and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to salon-style question-and-answer sessions where no money changed hands. Governor Richardson had a video-conference with the group, and Obama granted members free admission to a local fundraiser.
The group, called Win the White House in '08, "is the legal equivalent of a book club," says cofounder Jeff Anderson. "The group doesn't endorse candidates; it doesn't raise money as a group. It's just a network of friends coming together to do what democracy is supposed to be about, which is making an informed decision."
Mr. Rasiej says the outreach reflects a subtle shift away from the traditional model of top-down campaigning towards a newer, Internet-powered model with a bigger role for self-organized groups of voters. "The campaigns that turn themselves inside out and realize the campaigns are being run by the voters and not by them, are in a better position," he says. "The political organization that fails to recognize that dynamic is simply waiting to be included in the section on dinosaurs in Wikipedia."
New tool to find supporter hot spots
Even unorganized voters are finding new online tools for turning candidates' eyes their way.
Pop music fans had long used the website eventful.com to register hopes for a local concert appearance by a favorite artist. Soon, tour promoters were monitoring vote totals to help choose concert locations likely to draw the biggest crowds. This year, the website launched "Eventful Politics," extending the same service to supporters of political candidates.
A spokesman for the San Diego-based company said that the campaigns of Democrats Edwards and Obama and two Republicans – Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore – have already set up accounts, partly to identify supporter hot spots not yet on their radar.
Technology has given ordinary voters real-time access to the campaigns in other ways. In March, people who couldn't attend – or afford – a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Sen. John McCain in New York City could view a live webcast and pose questions online for $100. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney inaugurated the opening of his Iowa headquarters last month with a "Tele-Town Hall" conference call in which hundreds of voters took part from home.
APAP marvels at its intimate access
Some 65 APAP house parties, many in California, dialed in to the Elizabeth Edwards conference call earlier this month. At the small apartment here, a few guests marveled that a small group in a state unaccustomed to early primary-season attention would get a major candidate's ear. (Edwards himself had planned to do the call, but his wife filled in because of a last-minute scheduling conflict.)
"In California, you don't see candidates," said Eugene Lee, a lawyer with a legal aid group. "We don't even get phone calls. Things like this are not a substitute, but it helps make up for a lack of face-to-face time."
The menu at the house party here was cold cuts, chips, and fruit salad; the dress, T-shirts, khakis, and flip-flops. The guests were not big-money donors, just engaged young voters, many of them with social-service jobs.
APAP, which claims 7,500 members nationwide, was started in 2004 by California supporters of Howard Dean. But Curtis Chin, a founder and board member, still knows most of them only online. "Some people that I'd been working with since the Dean days, I hadn't met until early this year," he says.
In his view, the Internet's capacity to forge nationwide networks of like-minded voters – wealthy or not – is a boon for democracy. "For the longest time it was large donations, large organizations," says Mr. Chin, a screenwriter. "For our group, by pooling all of our small resources together and bringing new people into the process, we actually can have a role in this."