Stalled Campaigns Still Active Online

The famous anguished howl that marked the beginning of the end of Howard Dean's pursuit of the presidency in 2004 may have reverberated loudly in television's echo chamber, but on meetup.com, the Web site that helped to build him into the Democratic Party's first real frontrunner, he's still in the lead.

Viewing the current state of election-year politics through the mildly distorted lens of meetup.com presents a fascinating view of a world where Dean remains a powerful force. There, many supporters of barnstorming Democratic front-runner John Kerry can't even suggest a place to meet for cocktails. And George W. Bush hasn't amassed as many supporters as there are witches or the newly single, never mind devotees of the quixotic Democrat Dennis Kucinich.

This hardly indicates that meetup.com users are behind the times; while Dean has now conceded defeat and pledged to support the Democrats' eventual presidential nominee, he's said he'll maintain his organization to fight for the positions he advocated during his campaign.

And that organization was largely built online, where Dean's shrewd use of the Internet helped this outsider candidate raise a record-breaking $41 million and build a formidable grassroots organization. Early on, his supporters tapped into meetup.com, the community-building site that provides an easy virtual organizing tool for bringing like-minded souls together in the real world.

Most Active Meetups

As of last week, Dean's crew still ruled meetup.com. According to the site's statistics, meetups identified as involving politics and activism now account for close to one-third of all activity (the second largest category is cultures and communities with about 11 percent, followed by music with 9 percent and the Internet and technology with nearly 8 percent). Meetup.com users sign up to be notified of events in their communities where they can all converge at a specific time and place, sometimes just to socialize around a common interest in English Bulldogs, but more often to rally around a political cause.

On Friday, 188,700 meetup.com users were signed on to the Dean cause, followed by 66,600 for erstwhile presidential contender Wesley Clark (who has endorsed Kerry), 50,200 for Kerry, 23,800 for Kucinich, and just 10,900 for John Edwards, who is seen as the only remaining candidate likely to give Kerry any trouble on his way to the Democratic nomination. The Democratic Party garnered 28,300 meetup-ers.

Meanwhile, just 3400 had signed up for Bush meetups, eclipsed by 4000 signed up for Impeach Bush meetups. Doing more to stand up for the conservative cause in cyberspace were 22,723 users interested in meetups concerning townhall.com, a right-leaning news and information site. Five thousand souls had indicated interest in Republican party meetups.

Things didn't look much better for Bush on the comments area of meetup.com. Just seven of his supporters had weighed in, with sentiments that could have been penned by White House staffers, such as, "Everyone is getting excited about the election, defeating John Kerry and re-electing our President, George W. Bush!!" and the hopeful, "Good to see the numbers growing. We should have a network of volunteers by the time the campaign officially kicks off."

Starting to Catch On

By contrast, Dean's supporters filled more than eight pages with comments tending less to bravado and more along the lines of "this rocks!", with plans and suggestions for local action, and even an occasional gripe ("the waitress would not provide separate checks"). Meanwhile, the many Clark supporters penning comments seemed to indicate a slightly more mature fan base ("I loved knowing that my 23-year-old daughter was attending another meetup...at the same time") with more practical concerns ("I'm going to suggest nametags for the next one").

And while the man most likely to challenge Bush, John Kerry, seems to have the nomination all but sewn up in the world where primary ballots are counted, his supporters have some catching up to do if they want to get hip to the world of meetup.com. For one thing, even in a town like Chicago that's famous for both its bars and its politics, the process of nominating a venue for a Kerry meetup three days hence hadn't even begun. Dean supporters, however, are already exercising their right to vote for one of a variety of saloons, bars, and brewpubs for their March get-together. The situation is alarmingly similar in Washington, Denver, Atlanta, Seattle, and San Francisco.

Things are looking better in Kerry's hometown of Boston where the real power brokers like their Guinness on tap, and meetup-ers are casting ballots among three different Irish pubs. And in a portent that the Texan now in the White House might need to watch his back, the bidding for Kerry meetup venues in Houston is going strong. In the running are two outlets of Schlotzsky's, a chain that just announced it's adding free Wi-Fi hotspots to its outlets--so Kerry's organization may be getting hip to the Internet yet.

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