The online world has been touted as a transformative agent for politics since the late 1990s, but never quite lived up to its hype. This year, it looks like it has.
Late last year, Emily Allison decided Hillary Rodham Clinton ought to be the next president, and she wanted to help. But she wasn't sure how.
So she fired up her computer and, in short order, ended up as the campaign's campus coordinator at the University of Minnesota.
In doing so, the 21-year-old Spanish major from Rochester became one of the ground troops in an electronic revolution that's transforming presidential politics. This year, as never before, the Internet is fundamentally reshaping fundraising, voter outreach, turnout strategies and campaign news coverage.
Not since the advent of television has the nature of campaigning changed so much and so permanently.
"I wasn't sure what the campaign needed or who to contact, so I just went to Facebook and started looking for people who said they were Hillary supporters," Allison said. "It didn't take long until there were 15, 20 of us, all e-mailing and phone-banking and throwing together meetings."
They worked together in the runup to the Minnesota caucuses, and a core group from the university is still working the phones to help Clinton in the Indiana and North Carolina primaries today.
From viral videos and social networking chats to targeted fundraising e-mails and Net-based phone banking, the 2008 race has become fully interactive, with campaigns reaching deeply into a (mostly young) population that reaches right back.
And geography is no obstacle; all these relationships unfold in cyberspace.
Charlie Bemis is another revolutionary. Most days, he catches up on the state of the presidential campaign by cruising websites. He recently signed up as one of Barack Obama's nearly 800,000 Facebook "friends," is thinking of donating to Obama online and talks politics via e-mail with his flesh-and-blood friends.
"This is the most active I've ever been politically, so I'm always checking in on quite a few political sites," said Bemis, 29, a small-business owner from St. Cloud.
Although young Democrats are widely seen as more deeply wired-in, their Republican counterparts are using the same tools. Bethany Dorobiala, 21, chairs Minnesota's College Republicans, which has its own social networking site and uses Facebook to connect with potential supporters.
"It's a great way to communicate as an organization, so we definitely stay plugged into those," she said. "Not only can we recruit similar-minded people, but the Internet helps people seek us out. With all these tools, no one has an excuse not to get involved this year."
For more than a decade, each election cycle has been touted as the one that would be utterly changed by the Internet. This time, it's actually happening.
"Things are different this cycle, and it may turn out to be the first real e-election," said Steven Clift, a pioneer of Internet political activity from Minneapolis.
Dan Qualy, 23, a factory worker and DFL activist from Minneapolis, said cyberspace is an ideal place for political debate. "I've got Facebook friends where all we talk about is politics. When you take time to write carefully, you can have a more enlightened dialogue with other people."
Several recent polls have found that Americans are increasingly using the Internet as their primary source of news about the presidential campaign.
In a poll by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 24 percent of Americans said they regularly get campaign information from the Internet, nearly triple the percentage who said so in 2000.
The shift is most pronounced among the young. And they're not just heading for online news outlets, but increasingly watching viral videos and campaign ads on YouTube and using social networking sites.
"People my age have grown up in an era with so little trust in government and the media," Bemis said. "The Net has made it a lot easier to do your own research and get whatever information you need, though sometimes it's difficult to distinguish what's accurate."
Promise and peril for pols
Obama's campaign in Minnesota, where he overwhelmingly won the Feb. 5 caucuses, leaned heavily on Internet organizing, said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who ran the effort. "I was active in the [Bill] Bradley and [Howard] Dean campaigns when they were the most Web-savvy candidates running, but it's dramatically different this time because it's so interactive," he said.
And even though the nomination contest long ago left Minnesota behind, the Internet has remained a potent organizing tool, Rybak said.
In the runup to the Wisconsin primary, hundreds of Minnesota Obama supporters called across the border in a "Love a Cheesehead for Barack" effort and they continue to make those calls into Indiana and North Carolina.
Several weeks ago, an e-mail blast to the statewide Obama list turned out more than 800 people for an organizing meeting in Minneapolis; within days of the meeting, 1,000 new supporters joined the list.
"I'd thought we had turned over every rock before the caucuses, but the evolution of these tools has been just dramatic," Rybak said.
Nowhere has the Internet made the campaign more interactive than in fundraising, with an unprecedented amount given by small donors online.
"[John] McCain raised a lot of eyebrows back in 2000 when he was able to raise so much money online," Clift said. "Then four years ago, Howard Dean came out of nowhere and did the same thing. This time, it's definitely been accelerating."
Obama's record-shattering haul has been the gold standard of online fundraising: Nearly 60 percent of the nearly $200 million he has raised came via the Internet, 90 percent of that in amounts of $100 or less.
Hillary Rodham Clinton only belatedly began emulating that strategy after she had initially gone the more traditional big-donor route. But in February alone, 200,000 online donors contributed nearly $28 million to her campaign.
Speaking after her impressive Pennsylvania primary victory last month, Clinton wasted no time in urging supporters to "go to HillaryClinton.com" and contribute.
All the same, the new influence of the Internet, some say, holds peril as well as promise for politicians.
"You've created a huge shift in power over who's actually able to produce the campaign," said Patrick Lilja, director of online media for Tunheim Partners, a local public relations firm. The shapers of a candidate's image and message have "always been paid consultants and experts," he added, "which is all tightly controlled."
But the power of the Internet is people power. "This allows local people to develop their own messaging about the campaign," Lilja said. "It becomes more of a social conversation the [formal] campaign doesn't even know about.
"It's risky, because if it reflects poorly on the candidate, the candidate takes the heat."
Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184