Candidates for president of the United States start small, with early visits to Iowa and New Hampshire to make a speech here and there and to share doughnuts and coffee with locals. Maybe a staffer or two goes along to make sure hotel rooms and transportation are properly arranged.
A local elected official is recruited, and, as the campaign progresses, that local official's supporters are enlisted to give the candidate a ready source of volunteers. Over time, statewide organizations are built by cobbling together as many local political organizations as can be assembled.
A state director is hired to coordinate these local groups. The process is repeated all over the country.
At least that's how it used to be.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, running for the Democratic Party's nomination, has turned this system on its head this year by supplanting most local political leaders with volunteers who have signed up over the Internet. If it works, it may be the most important development in political organizing in many years.
When they started meeting in small groups earlier this year all over the country - nicknamed “meetups” and organized through a Web site - President Bush was flying high in the polls and few took the gatherings seriously. Last week, Mr. Dean traveled across the country in a four-day, 10-city campaign tour de force that marked the beginning of his national campaign, proving along the way that Internet volunteers are an emerging power.
Logistics for the trip must have been daunting, made more so because traveling with the candidate were dozens of reporters who would be quick to let readers know if something got screwed up.
Well, nothing did. The trip, dubbed by the campaign as the “Sleepless Summer Tour,” kept to its arduous schedule.
At one stop in Milwaukee, about 800 people gathered at 10 p.m. at an airport hangar to hear Mr. Dean. As attendees arrived, they were greeted by a phalanx of volunteers, each with a laptop computer up and running to register every willing person.
Only names and e-mail addresses were taken - the Dean campaign doesn't bother with snail mail and its postage costs.
The names were to be added to a national list of Dean volunteers that now numbers more than 340,000, the candidate said.
Joel Martin, a junior at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who was among those taking registrations, was a typical passionate Dean supporter.
Mr. Dean “really has an electricity about him. He comes across as not being part of the [Democratic Party's] old boy network. He's what can save the Democratic Party,” the student said.
These volunteers are the secret weapon of the Dean campaign. They are true believers - lured into the fold by the candidate's vehement opposition to the Iraqi war, the sluggish economy, and residual anger over the outcome of the 2000 presidential election - and are motivated to action. Many helped behind the scenes on his cross-country trip.
Some got up in the wee hours of the morning to go through the hallways of the hotels where the candidate and press were sleeping to pick up baggage and get it loaded onto the chartered jet. Most mornings, reporters were told to have their bags out in the hallway by 5 a.m.
Arriving at the next hotel in the next city - sometimes not until midnight after a late rally - reporters found that the campaign had already checked them in.
Receiving room assignments and keys, they found, inside their rooms, the bags they had abandoned so many hours before. If there were baggage mistakes, reporters didn't hear about them.
Because the travel schedule was difficult and left reporters with no time to find food, campaign workers arranged for food to find the reporters, who had only to pay for it as they did their rooms and other travel expenses.
Other volunteers painted and hung signs. Some handled crowd control - just basic grass roots stuff to help an event in their area go off smoothly. The point is, they were involved performing a small part of what it takes to put on a big show.
Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi said that their Internet supporters also seem to have developed a personal attachment to the campaign. He said a “sense of community” encouraged by the informal communication style found in Dean Internet chat rooms is the glue that binds these intense supporters to their candidate.
“This,” Mr. Trippi said, “is why it is so hard to stop this campaign right now.”