Christine Williams, professor of Government, has been hard at work on a recent study, "The e-Campaign for Presidential Election 2004," providing insight into who makes up presidential campaign grassroots supporters and what draws them to the Meetup phenomenon. She has focused on both Howard Dean and Wesley Clark's campaigns.
Q: What led you to this particular research topic?
A: My general area is political communication, and in the last three or four years, I've been interested in the Internet as a vehicle for political communication. I had done research examining all of the major and minor party candidates for U.S. Senate in 2000 and 2002. When a reporter from The New York Times had read some of this and called me this past fall, she wanted to know about Meetups and this guy Howard Dean. I talked to her for over a half-hour, and realized that I didn't have anything except anecdotal or personal experience to answer her questions. The data did not exist, to tell her who's using this, why they're using it, and what difference it's going to make to anybody- the campaigns, potential voters- that Meetup exists as the hot new campaign tool of the 2004 presidential election. The colleague I had been working with on the 2002 Senate project, Jesse Gordon, co-founded Mass for Dean. I emailed him after speaking with the reporter saying 'How about if we do a study and survey on this?' He just thought it was a terrific idea. He said, 'Nobody's doing this. The campaigns need to know it. This is really hot.' This was mid-September, and with the next Dean Meetup scheduled for October 1, we only had about ten days to put a survey together, recruit participants, and post it so they could hand it out.
Q: Has it been enjoyable for you?
A: It's fun, because I really believe that the Dean campaign has figured out ahead of anyone else, what to do with the Internet. It's not what the conventional wisdom and the pundits were saying the Internet was going to be good for. They were thinking about the Internet like television. In other words, until you've got all of the electorate using it, and you're using it to mobilize and educate voters, the Internet isn't worth anything. It was campaign managers and candidates who felt that way too. Well, the Internet isn't a mass medium of communication anything like television. It's a tool for what I call the 'back door organizing' of campaigns- the things they've always done to raise money, recruit volunteers, and communicate and coordinate internally. Now what Dean has done, through Meetup, to generate, field and coordinate a far-flung grassroots organization that used to have to be done by human power. The multiplier effect has been incredible.
Q: Has it helped you gain any new insight into the 2004 elections?
A: We are asking how other candidates stack up. That's always fun. Everybody wants to know if they've got some inside information that nobody else has about who might win. I don?t know if we have any of that, but there are some interesting things. For example, Joe Lieberman is not favorably viewed in any of the surveys we've done, and I would've figured differently. But he's just not 'clicking' at all, and that's consistent in the several surveys we've done. There's always that sort of gossip kind of stuff a survey gives you, but ours is not a random sample and does not have the mathematical qualities that a Gallup or Harris poll has.
Q: What in turn do you hope to do with your findings?
A: We have a couple of different tracks we're pursuing. One, we want to get our findings out to trade publications. We're targeting practitioners- political consultants, activists, the campaign organizations. We also have in mind academic publications, and we're looking at cross-disciplinary outlets. Some are the hybrid, brand new ones, and some online ones. We might not pick traditional, mainstream political science journals. I also have researchers who have seen our publicity and have emailed me about our research. So, people are interested, and there aren't large numbers of folks studying this, and I'm not sure anybody else has the data we have.