Barack Obama's campaign held 5,000 local meetings across the country last weekend, and along with the nachos and celery sticks, supporters munched on a pep talk from the candidate himself, speaking online from a public library in Onawa, Iowa.
As The New York Times reported, however, some gatherings were poorly attended and their hosts "had a lonelier afternoon than they had hoped." Only three visitors showed up at an apartment in Brooklyn and the Internet feed from Iowa kept breaking down.
Obama's "community kickoffs" demonstrate the great strengths and weaknesses of the Internet as a political tool. Without a doubt, it has an enormous potential for raising money and mobilizing volunteers. The main target: hard-to-reach younger voters who are completely comfortable receiving information through the Web.
But it's not easy prying those same people away from their computers and training them to meet strangers, organize events, knock on doors and drag voters to the polls. No one has fully solved the problem that torpedoed Howard Dean, who built a large and lively community of Web-based supporters in 2004 but flamed out in the Iowa caucuses.
Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, told The Washington Post that he was studying Dean's failure in Iowa and trying to learn from his mistakes. The most obvious one: of Dean's 650,000 Internet supporters, only about 2,500 lived in Iowa, which meant that most of his ground-level organizing had to be done by out-of-staters.
The Deaniacs even wore orange hats, which quickly became a badge of their alien status. This time, says Plouffe, Obama's goal is to have "Iowans talking to Iowans." Without an orange hat in sight.
Dean's problem, however, went far beyond the lack of home grown Iowa shock troops. His campaign put so much emphasis on the cool new networking tools available online that organizers sometimes lost sight of the campaign's real goal: Votes.
With all the buzz Dean generated about "meet-ups" and "Friendster" and like-minded dweebs finding a soul mate at the next phone bank, his campaign could sound more like a dating service or an encounter group than a hard-nosed political outfit.
Obama's online presence has some of that same pop-psych feel. When we went to his homepage (www.barackobama.com), the most vivid word (as of this writing) was not "Obama" at all. It was "you." As in "YOU COUNT" in big letters, right at the top. Or in the slogan for My.BarackObama.com, the site where Obama fans can meet and greet and exchange pictures and ideas (and presumably cell phone numbers): "This Campaign is About You."
But Obama's managers clearly understand what's truly revolutionary about the Internet: its interactive capability. As Dean realized three years ago, supporters can now "talk back" to the campaign, and that alters their whole mindset. The tantalizing possibility exists that the Internet can turn passive recipients of information into activists; that every individual can become a street organizer, a fund-raiser, a message-spreader.
Hillary Clinton has a well-established organization of party stalwarts inherited from her husband. The Internet gives Obama a chance to create an alternative campaign structure on the Internet. And he's not the only one.
As the Mar. 31 deadline for first-quarter campaign donations approached, everyone on John Edwards' e-mail list received an urgent appeal from campaign manager David Bonior. "There is no 'later' on this one," he pleaded. "Tonight sets the course for the rest of the campaign, and this moment won't come again. Will you be the one who gets us across the finish line?"
But Bonior urged recipients to do more than just mash the big red "donate" button. He wanted to flatter and engage them. Hit the "reply" button as well, he said, share your reasons for backing Edwards. Of the $14 million Edwards raised in the first quarter, $3 million, or 22 percent, came through the Web.
Clinton took a different tack, reminding supporters in her last-minute appeal that "pundits" don't think the Internet is "our turf", and urging donors to prove the experts wrong. Some did: $4 million of her $26 million (16 percent) came online.
The Internet fractures three basic concepts: time, space and place. Voters can receive (and send) information at any time of the day, at any length, and -- using cell phones and laptops and Blackberries -- from almost any location.
That's all new, and the impact on politics could be incalculable. But only if -- and it's still a big if -- online communities move to the real world and do the real work.
Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.