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Online Organizing: The 2004 Howard Dean Campaign

While the Republicans were revolutionizing the application of statistics in politics, the Democrats were tackling the issue of voter outreach from a different angle: online organizing. Leading the pack was Howard Dean, whose approach would lay the foundation for Obama’s unprecedented online grassroots movement. Dean supporters used Meetup, a website that connects members who share similar interests, to plan rallies and meetings. To manage the logistics of using this tool, Dean staff were forced to establish regular meetings with online group organizers, creating the beginnings of online organizing infrastructure. Dean’s campaign also frequented online forums to share talking points, generate new ideas, and solicit feedback. Dean was one of the earliest political candidates to use the web to fundraise, collecting more than $50 million over the course of his campaign. Unfortunately, Dean was unable to convert online infrastructure into actual votes. Despite his community’s enthusiasm, the campaign faltered when it came to offline action due to a lack of ground support.

When it was time for the Obama camp to build their online grassroots movement, they made sure to learn from Dean’s experiences. The Obama site’s strategy could be summed up in one sentence: online organizing equals offline action. “One of the lessons, obviously for us, is making sure that the grassroots enthusiasm translates into votes,” Obama said in a New York Times interview. “And that’s something obviously that we’re going to be paying a lot of attention to.”

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