The Cyber-Education of John Kerry and Other Political Actors

By Michael Cornfield

Pew Internet & American Life Project

[NOTE: Bibliographic references and survey data cited in this essay may be found at starting at the author’s biographical page.]

Climbing Aboard The Learning Curve

On December 1, 2002, John Kerry appeared on the television program “Meet The Press” to announce that he would form a presidential exploratory committee in the week ahead.  It was a traditional, almost ritualistic, maneuver.  Kerry used the program to inform its audience of five million political cognoscenti that he was going to run for president in 2004.  A loud and broad negative reaction to his announcement or to his responses to the notoriously tough questions posed by the show’s host, Tim Russert, might have given Kerry pause, prompting a delay or even a change in plans.  A positive review to his performance would have enhanced his stature as a likely front-runner in the race.

Nearly two years later, when he conceded defeat to George W. Bush, Kerry again appeared on television, delivering an address from Faneuil Hall in his home town of Boston.  But this time Kerry also sent a textual version of his remarks, under the heading “A Sincere Thank You,” to the 2.7 million subscribers on his campaign email list.  A transcript of the concession speech appeared on his campaign web site, which had been visited by twenty million adult Americans.

Like many other people, John Kerry had become politically netwise in the intervening months.  He had learned what the internet could do for his campaign at a time when it was becoming a popular medium for activists and close observers of public affairs.   Had his campaign been netwise in December 2002, it might have inspired some of the people who liked what they saw and heard on “Meet The Press” to visit the campaign web site.  Some of those visitors might have signed up to receive email from the campaign, and volunteered to work for the campaign, both online and off.  In other words, Kerry’s online network might have been larger, earlier.

Kerry’s inner circle might have also noticed something that didn’t surface in newspaper accounts of his appearance.  The press stitched together quotes of Kerry’s positions on current issues with basic facts about his life and career, the nomination process, and the latest polls.  But in the conservative regions of that constellation of individual web sites known as the blogosphere, the following summary of one exchange between Kerry and Russert popped up.

  • NBC’s Tim Russert: “Senator . . . should we freeze or roll back the Bush tax cut?”
  • Kerry: “Well, I wouldn’t take away from people who’ve already been given their tax cut . . . . What I would not do is give any new Bush tax cuts. . . .”
  • Russert: “So the tax cut that’s scheduled to be implemented in the coming years . . . .”
  • Kerry: “No new tax cut under the Bush plan. . . . It doesn’t make economic sense.”
  • Russert: “Now, this is a change, because let me show you what you said in September of 2001 when I asked you the very same question.” (NBC’s “Meet The Press,” December 1, 2002)

This chunk of text resurfaced repeatedly online for the duration of the campaign.  It was held up as an example of what would soon be termed a Kerry “flip-flop.”  Had the Kerry campaign monitored the online reaction to the interview, it would have noticed that the candidate had a budding consistency problem.

The price of not being attuned to the blogosphere would prove even greater in August 2004, when the Kerry campaign waited for poll results to come back before responding in full to attack ads by the ad hoc advocacy group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.  Part of the rationale for not responding was that the ads had only aired in a few small television markets.  But they were also online.  The conversation was online.  By the time polling confirmed a threat to Kerry’s stature, the drop was considerable.

By August 2004, however, the Kerry campaign had learned another advantage of online campaigning.  Together with the Democratic National Committee, it would collect a record $122 million in contributions through the internet in 2004.   Much of that money was raised through appeals the campaign made; some of it came at donors’ initiatives.  Kerry was eligible to receive that amount because he had opted out of public financing the previous fall, in order to try and keep pace with the fundraising prowess of his Democratic rival Howard Dean.

Dean, the frontrunner in the race for much of 2003, relied on the internet not just for money, but also for grassroots organizing, message dissemination, and tactical intelligence.  The Dean campaign learned from the progressive online advocacy group and went beyond them, even as continued to innovate and evolve.   Meanwhile, the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee (RNC) teamed up with advocacy groups to use the internet to help implement what RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie justifiably called, in his post-election thank you email to over 7 million subscribers, “the most sophisticated voter contact strategy in campaign history.”

The numbers of Americans receiving presidential campaign emails and watching Sunday morning politics programs were roughly comparable in the 2004 election cycle.  There was probably considerable congruency between these internet and television audiences.  But the internet is quite different from television, and every other political medium for that matter.  First, the internet allows campaigners to avoid the press and speak directly to cognoscenti, without having to pony up big bucks for a thirty-second advertising spot.  Second, the internet is bi-directional, allowing members of a campaign audience to send back comments, dollars, subscription addresses, and pledges of volunteer time.  On the internet, every audience member is also, potentially and simultaneously, an activist.  Third, the online channels which connect campaigns with cognoscenti are embedded in a network which allows both ends to talk laterally as well: among themselves, to members of other circles, to the world at large, and to posterity.  The blogosphere has emerged as a symbol of this talk-laden region of the internet, but email, chat groups, and message boards are also important online forums for political discourse.

No medium matches television’s reach to the politically inattentive.  But no medium matches the internet for tactical versatility and democratic accessibility.  The 2002-2004 election cycle marks the point in history when presidential campaigns figured out how to make some of the internet’s distinctive qualities pay off on a continual and systematic basis.  Equally important, campaigns recognized that they had to develop an internet strategy, and keep up with the latest developments in online techniques and technologies, because whatever happened online was an integral part of public life.

The campaigners’ climb onto the internet learning curve was the psychological equivalent of the move internet users make when they switch from a dial-up to a broadband connection.  “Going broadband,” in the vernacular, means taking advantage of all the things you can do with a super-fast, always-on, high-volume link to the internet.  Campaigners still have much to learn about the internet.  (Neither Kerry nor Bush nor any other seriously considered presidential candidate, including Howard Dean, knew how to blog in the 2004 cycle.)  But political professionals now realize that they must make the commitment to keep learning.  Once you go broadband, you can’t stop trying to stay netwise –because too many other people who are important to your campaign are doing the same.

Dean for President: The Campaigners’ Wake-Up Call

One month after Kerry’s quasi-announcement, as 2003 began, the Howard Dean for President campaign had $157,000 cash on hand, seven paid staff, 432 identified supporters nationwide, and no offices other than its headquarters in Burlington, Vermont.  A year later, 400 paid staff occupied offices in 24 states.  More than 280,000 people had donated $40 million to the campaign, a little more than half of its 552,930 identified supporters.  (The average donation was just over $100.)  Three national labor unions, thirty members of Congress, and the party’s 2000 nominee, Al Gore, had endorsed Dean.  “Just imagine,” read the campaign web site posting for January 1, 2004, after ticking off many of these statistics, “what 2004 can bring.”

Few among the cognoscenti imagined that the Dean campaign had recently passed its apogee of strength, and was headed for a rapid descent.  Yet despite its collapse, this long-shot to front-runner campaign stands out as the best example to date of what a netwise operation can achieve.  The internet was not the only factor behind Dean’s rise; his feisty opposition to the Iraq war galvanized progressives, giving them a leader to rally around.  But Dennis Kucinich opposed the war, too.  Dean’s ascent benefited from his hiring of campaign manager Joe Trippi, who possessed a rare combination of expertise in both presidential politics and high-technology enterprise.  Together, they created a campaign team eager to experiment with the internet.  The discoveries they made together with the hundreds of thousands of Americans who became active in the Dean network during 2003 amount to a veritable textbook in online campaigning.   Five innovations stand out:

  1. News-pegged fundraising appeals.  Campaigns typically play to three motivations when they solicit donations.  Potential contributors want access to decision-makers, to please a friend (or get rid of a pest), and to advance shared policy goals.  The Dean campaign, taking a cue from, demonstrated that candidates can raise money a fourth way, on the strength of the internet’s instant turnaround capacity:  by promulgating short-term goals which immediate donations can help the campaign attain.
    Such goals often flow out of a campaign’s daily battles to win media attention.  Contributions are sought to finance ads that will let a campaign respond fast and prominently to an opponent’s assertion, or to stage an event that will attract news coverage.  The campaign can then thank the donors with evidence of the media play their dollars made possible.  And it can count on the ensuing week to bring fresh news and new goals to set.
    For example, in July 2003 the Dean campaign took advantage of news reports about an upcoming $2,000-a-plate Republican luncheon featuring Vice-President Cheney.  Up, out, and around the Dean network went word of “The Cheney Challenge” — could Dean supporters raise more money than the luncheon by the time it took place?– accompanied by a web video of the candidate munching on a “three-dollar” turkey sandwich.  Cheney’s lunch raised $250,000 from 125 guests.  The online fundraising gimmick netted the Dean campaign $500,000 from 9700 people, and great publicity about its grassroots enthusiasm and prowess.
    Before long, every television appearance by a presidential candidate, from the Sunday talk shows to the conventions and debates, was seen by netwise campaigns as an opportunity to rake in money.  In July 2004, Kerry asked his online supporters to make a statement to the nation on the day he accepted the party nomination, and pulled in $5.6 million.
  2. “Meetups” and other net-organized local gatherings.   Early in 2003, Trippi put a link on the home page of the Dean campaign to the web site of, a company which helps individuals arrange to get together with others in their area who share an interest in something.  The something can be a hobby, sports team, television program, or a campaign, as the Dean team discovered to its delight.  The Dean Meetup population eventually constituted a virtual mid-size city, with several hundred thousand activists situated across the nation and beyond.  Monthly Meetups among Dean campaign veterans were still attracting people in January, 2005.
  3. Blogging.  A blog is an online diary posted in reverse chronological order, sometimes with room for reader comments, usually with links to blogs run by people the reader may also find interesting.  The social bonding and grassroots organizing which occurs in and around Meetups also occurs through clusters of blogs.   In 2003, the Dean campaign posted 2,910 entries on its “Blog for America” and received 314,121 comments, which were also posted there.  As the result of one of those comments, 115,632 handwritten letters were sent from supporters to eligible voters in the upcoming Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.  (MeetUp captains were issued lists, stamped envelopes, and a sample text for the letterwriters to follow.)  A blogger also came up with the Cheney Challenge.
  4. Online referenda.   When the Dean campaign considered opting out of public financing, it decided to put the question to its network for an online vote.  The overwhelming positive response affirmed to the Dean supporters and the political world that the move was worth it; indeed, those who voted “yes” received back a thank-you email with a request for money.   Two other 2003 online referenda provided its backers with political cover, resources, and momentum: the drive to recall California Governor Gray Davis, and the draft Wesley Clark for President movement.
  5. Decentralized decision-making.   Dean’s slogan was “You have the power.”  His campaign put something behind the rhetoric (populist, but also libertarian) through the four techniques listed above, and more generally by leaving local supporters to campaign as they saw fit.  Balancing the positive energy flow of a movement with the precision of an organization presents the next generation of campaigners with perhaps their greatest challenge.  The internet makes this a matter of software configuration as well as political management.

At the end of June 2003, Dean won the “money primary” constituted by the reporting of fundraising totals to the Federal Election Commission for the second quarter of 2003.  George W. Bush had burst to the front of the Republican pack in the comparable report in 1999.  Now it was Dean’s turn.  The internet was rightly seen as the primary instrument through which his political power was accruing.  If one had to single out a mass moment of realization among political actors that they had to climb aboard the online learning curve, this was it.

The big question for emulators of the Dean campaign is: did these innovations prefigure the campaign’s failure as well as its success?  Dean and Trippi both say no, and, as with the rise, there are non-internet explanations for the fall.  The candidate was not ready, and perhaps not entirely willing, to perform before a mass audience as a presidential front-runner.  Several of his competitors, notably Kerry, picked up his anti-war message, and as they did the liberal blogosphere and Democratic activists elsewhere turned what was once an insiders’ consideration into a voters’ issue: “electability.”  However, there was something flawed about the Dean campaign’s net-heavy organization.  The Bush-Cheney campaign corrected one of those flaws in a way that worked spectacularly for them, and so became part of the ever-expanding textbook of online campaigning.

Targeted Grass Roots: GOTV Goes Digital

After decades of mass-media domination, interpersonal campaigning underwent a renaissance in the early years of the millennium.  The so-called “ground war” entails canvassing citizens to discern their preferences, engaging them to persuade and mobilize supporters, and finally, getting out the vote (GOTV), both on election day and before through programs aimed at taking advantage of the burgeoning early and absentee voter programs in many states.  All told, nearly two-thirds of the adult population (64%) was contacted directly by political actors in the final two months of the 2004 campaign.  Republicans and Democrats reached roughly the same number of people, and relied on the four same interpersonal channels in about the same proportions: regular (or “direct”) mail remained the top channel of contact (reaching 49% of the public), with phone calls second at 40%, emails at 14%, and home visits at 9%.  But these numbers say nothing about the efficacy of the contacts.  The internet made a difference in helping campaigns decide who to contact, what to say, when to say it, and, crucially, who to send to say it.  This is where the Republicans shone.

While the Democrats had more activists in their field operation, the Republicans did a better job of integrating computer power and internet communication into theirs.

The Bush-Cheney campaign (or BC04, as it was known) gained proficiency in internet campaigning from the mundane but vital advantage of having its team in place before the Democratic candidates began competing with each other, let alone with the Republican nominee.  For example, the campaign’s e-campaign director, Chuck DiFeo, started working at the RNC in April 2002, and at BC04 when it commenced operations in June 2003.  To be sure, longevity is not an asset unless the personnel are good.  They were.

With fundraising not a necessity, and grassroots organizing a perceived need for improvement dating back to the 2000 campaign, BC04 planned, tested, refined, and committed itself and its allies to a program which fused the basics of old-fashioned canvassing, marketing, and proselytizing with the latest in data acquisition, analysis, and distribution.  Call it targeted grassroots.  The campaign determined which segments of the voting population it wanted to contact, installed a rewards program to motivate volunteers (notably, choice seats at events featuring the president), equipped volunteers with customized talking points and contact lists so as to make the most of existing relationships (and supplied home door-knockers with downloadable maps spelling out estimated walking times), and kept track of every action taken to increase efficiency and output.

The House Party for the President initiative constituted one aspect of this targeted grassroots operation.  Starting on April 29, 2004, the BC04 campaign relied on the internet to organize and coordinate simultaneous team-building sessions across the country –MeetUps without the company as middleman.  The July 15, 2004 parties featured a 30-minute conference call with Laura Bush, who answered six questions selected earlier from submissions and then brought her husband to the phone for a surprise cameo finish.  There were 6,920 parties that day; in all, over 30,000 would be held, with over 350,000 participants.

Democrats mounted a targeted grassroots which matched the Republicans in sophistication, but not in cohesiveness or effectiveness.  They started later.  Like Dean, they hired recruits and bussed college students to faraway states, where the GOP relied more on the stronger ties inherent to local congregations, neighborhoods, and (under the aegis of the “Prosperity Project” spearheaded by BIPAC, the Business Industry Political Action Committee) employer-employee and business–stakeholder relations.  The Democratic field team was also hampered more by the rules of the recently enacted Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.  Under its restrictions, field operatives working for one of the 527 groups could neither coordinate with the Kerry campaign, nor advocate voting for him.

In the end, the Democrats mustered what was probably the second best GOTV operation in modern campaign history.  Ed Gillespie had it right.

Conclusion: The Ripening of the Online Citizenry     

Did internet use make a difference in the 2004 presidential race?  Yes.  The most successful campaigns relied on it to gain advantages over their competitors.  And the numbers of adult Americans who relied on the internet to get interested in the campaigns, to help make up their minds, to help others make up theirs, and to register and vote is simply too large relative to the final margin to think otherwise.

Interest in the presidential election was up through all media, as might be expected for a race regarded as close and crucial.  But internet use for political news and information grew 83% between 2000 and 2004.  Tens of millions of Americans had gone broadband before the election caught their attention, and once it did, broadband carried more of it to them, and more of them into it, than had ever been seen in this country.  The number of eligible voters looking online for news and information about the campaigns doubled from 34 to 63 million, representing 31% of the U.S. adult population.    Those getting election news and information on a daily or more frequent basis reached 20 million by election day.  About 42 million people said they used email to discuss politics.  About 13 million people used the internet to donate money, volunteer, or learn about events to attend.  All told, 85 million Americans did something online pertinent to the 2004 elections.  This engorged constituency for online politics guarantees that, no matter how exciting or dull the 2006 and 2008 elections turn out to be, campaigns will benefit from having an online component to everything they do.

John Kerry has certainly grasped this.  He has moved to the forefront in political internet use with an innovation he calls the first online Congressional hearing.  In January 2005, he set up a system through his web site and email list to collect telephone “testimony” about the need for legislation to provide health care to uninsured children.  Phone messages are recorded, and some are posted to the site for listening.  Citizens can also sign up to “cosponsor” Kerry’s “Kids First” bill.  This venture may work as public lobbying; it may work to keep Kerry’s nationwide network alive and growing –who knows.  The point is, he’s netwise.