Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Political Meetup

Cherniak has posted a few comments in recent days about his participation at "meetups" organized through the Dryden campaign:
This was a meeting of people that was organized by forwarded emails. Some of the attendees were there as Liberal Dryden supporters, some were Liberals interested in the event and some were non-members who wanted to join the party to support Dryden. I believe it is the sort of thing that the Dean campaign did to create momentum in his run for the Democratic leadership. The moderator mostly just asked questions and facilitated brainstorming; it was all about the campaign listening to people.
Given that these types of events are probably going to catch on in many of the leadership camps, let's clarify a bit the history of the political "meetup". It's essentially a simple way of harnessing technology to bring together people with the same interests. Imagine you are interested in something a little bit off the wall - at the time Dean's supporters started spiking dramatically, the most popular link on meetup.com was "witches", believe it or not - and want to meet others similarly minded. So if you were an avid Dean supporter in, say, Seattle almost a year before the primary, but were keenly (some might say obsessively) interested in participating, you would sign up on the site and use meetup as an incredibly simple way to get in touch with other people in your city who wanted to get involved as well. The power of numbers.

Wikipedia has an excellent summary of the phenomenon. But the key thing to recognize is that meetups, at their core, are not necessarily "organized" by the campaign or the candidate at all. They depend only on the enthusiasm of the grassroots (call them ordinary, politically aware citizens) wanting to contribute. Of course, campaigns would be stupid to ignore gatherings of their supporters, and it remains their responsibility to put this discovered energy and willingness to get involved to good use. As Dean said, "We fell into this by accident... I wish I could tell you we were smart enough to figure this out. But the community taught us. They seized the initiative through Meetup. They built our organization for us before we had an organization."

Why then and why Dean? Unfortunately, too many people only just began hearing of Dean at the beginning of 2004, just as he began to flame out. Few remember that he began his quixotic quest for the Presidency in November 2002 as an asterix candidate. His candidacy stood for an idea - that Democrats were tired of their leaders rolling over to the Republicans and wanted someone to stand up. That, in a nut shell, was why he garnered such a strong grassroots following. That and the fact that the presumed frontrunners (Kerry, Gephardt, Lieberman...) were viewed as tired and boring and woefully out of touch.

The campaign innovations, the role of the Internet in raising funds, blogforamerica... these were ways of connecting Democrats across the country who looked at the list of conventional candidates, deemed them unacceptable, and - in a real sense - helped invent another one. That Dean subsequently failed to stand up to the scrutiny when he got to the top of the heap doesn't take away from the campaign's amazing accomplishments in putting him in position. Ironically, it was the endorsement of Al Gore - the old school technique of garnering leadership race support, that started Dean's decline.

In stark contrast to the Democratic primary of 2004, however, this Liberal leadership race has a wealth of quality candidates. More importantly, almost all of whom are in complete agreement on the need for profound renewal within the party that starts at the membership level. The wide-open nature of the contest ensures that the grassroots will already play a huge part and that people other than the "professional" political operatives will get plenty of opportunities. So it is difficult for a Carolyn Bennett to inspire new members with the idea of further access and involvement, because all candidates are already doing this and, further, it doesn't appear that real policy differences are going to emerge.

The meetup concept would likely have been a much more useful way for Liberals dissatisfied with a Paul Martin type frontrunner, who seemed to have all the key players locked up. An exclusive team, in other words, that was more intent on crossing the finish line than putting forth new ideas on where the country should go. But that's yesterday's story. Meetups and their sort will have an impact only where the enthusiasm of the base outstrips the campaign's ability and understanding of how to meet the demand. This time, that doesn't look to be as large an issue. But maybe someone's out there that can prove me wrong.


Blogger Jason Townsend said...

I'm rather interested in the "hows and whys" of this working as well. How does it work in Canada? Does it make a difference that the populations and geography are different, that the leadership process in the United States tends to follow a certain primary process that they can build around? That their political process is in a constant state of ferment from all the elections?

A fellow supporter of Ignatieff's campaign was asking me what percentage of the meetup I attended this week were "internet" attendees and which were people organized by more traditional means (email to party clubs etc.) I wish I had had the wits to make that kind of count myself; it's a useful question.

12:03 AM  

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