Social Media in the 2004 Election

by Michael Jablonski

Georgia State University


By the time of the 2004 election cycle, widespread availability of internet technology made it possible for all campaigns to manage volunteers and raise money online. The Pew Research Center reported that during the 2004 election campaign 75 million people used the internet to obtain political information, 50% more than in 2000. Among donors under the age of 34, 80% used social media to make contributions.1

Political campaigns used the Internet as early as 1992, but 1996 was the first presidential campaign to do so, with Bob Dole and Bill Clinton each establishing a basic online presence.2 John McCain’s presidential primary campaign in 2000, under the direction of Max Fose, developed a number of successful online practices, including the first online phone bank.3  McCain raised $2 million online in the four days following the New Hampshire primary, eventually raising $6.4 million online.4 Campaign professionals, such as Joe Trippi who would run Howard Dean’s online campaign in 2004, took note.

The general availability of internet technology in 2004 fostered communication between campaigns and voters, as well as discussions among potential voters. The first blog, written by Justin Hall when he was a student at Swarthmore, went online in January 1994. The term “blog” appeared five years later when Peter Merholz shortened “weblog.” By 1999 the first free blog-creation service, Blogger, was operating online.5 Online social networking sites have a lineage considerably older than blogs. The first computer bulletin board system, Community Memory, began operating in 1973. Created by Efrem Lipkin, Mark Szpakowski, and Lee Feslenstein it consisted of a teleprinter linked via telephone modem to a computer at a record store in Berkeley, California.6 Community Memory, consisting of a single computer that anyone could check for messages left on it, demonstrated a potential for social communication. The oldest identified social networking site was The Well, established in 1985. Cyworld, created in South Korea in 1999, was the first to allow user-customizable virtual space.7  Blogs, developed in 1997, and social networking sites, first rising to prominence in 1999, created an interactive online environment. Campaigns learned to use these online social networking connections to go beyond fundraising to mobilize supporters.

The campaign of Howard Dean, managed by Joe Trippi, recognized that geographically dispersed supporters could function cooperatively when networked by the internet.8 The new communication technology allowed the campaign to experiment with innovative fundraising appeals, agile grass-roots organizing requiring minimal input from the campaign, and decentralized management. Fundraising appeals communicated online could target small donors attracted by the day’s news as a supplement to traditional solicitations based upon long-term policy goals, access to candidates, or face-to-face appeals. “The Cheney Challenge” in July 2003, for example, asked Dean supporters to match donations Republicans would reap at a $2000-a-plate lunch with Vice-president Cheney. 125 guests raised $250,000 at the event. Over three days 9700 supporters gave the Dean campaign twice that amount.9 The online presence of the Dean campaign facilitated meetings prompted by local supporters rather than the national campaign, as had been traditional. Trippi linked the Dean webpage to, a social networking platform that facilitated meetings based on users’ shared interests in a common locality. Starting in 2003, the campaign used to deploy a social network of 140,000 activists across the country. allowed local supporters to directly identify others in their locality sharing an interest in the Dean candidacy to arrange meetings. The Dean campaign benefitted from 800 meetings across the country organized through MeetUp in December 2003 alone.10The campaign supplemented MeetUp with its “Blog for America” site, started on March 15, 2003, that allowed supporters and the campaign to leave information about potential meetings, issues, and tactics. The Dean campaign blogs, the first in a presidential campaign, eventually attracted over 500,000 members.  The sense of community created online facilitated decentralized management of the campaign. Supporters participated in strategy referenda, participating in decisions such as the rejection of public financing by Dean on November 8, 2003.11

The Dean campaign promoted social media aggressively, but every primary candidate except Carol Mosley Braun and Al Sharpton used social media as an organizing tool. Interactive web technology allowed volunteers to publish pictures of campaign events. The visual narrative of campaigns such as Dean’s (and to a lesser extent those of Kerry and Bush), shifted from emphasis on candidates to celebrations of supporters, transforming campaigns into social networks. By employing social media to directly contact potential voters, campaigns not only limited the intervening role of traditional media but also established relationships between voters and campaigns that could be mobilized into grassroots campaigning. Campaign use of social media reached unprecedented heights in the summer of 2004, when for the first time both George W. Bush and John Kerry promoted their websites in their nomination acceptance speeches at their parties’ convention.

Tax-exempt political groups, known as 527s, similarly employed social media to disseminate information and raise money.  These groups formed in order to influence elections, but had the advantage of doing so without regulation by either federal or state election law. Citizens United, one such 527 group, combined its internet database of potential supporters with traditional phone banks to solicit donations. promoted its agenda through social media featuring videos, images, and videoconferences. employed heat maps showing the intensity of activities across the US during its appeals.12

Despite the proliferation of social media in the 2004 election cycle, social media remained constrained by technological limitations. Although campaigns promoted gatherings through, they could not maintain control where local supporters controlled meeting logistics. Moreover, techniques to convert online activity into canvassing for data collection and subsequent mobilization had not yet been developed. The failure to efficiently integrate the advantages of social media into traditional campaign activities undermined realization of the potential for social media as a political tool. The 2004 election demonstrated that social media could raise significant amounts of money, engage voters unmotivated by traditional campaigns (44% of online political activists in 2004 had not previously worked for a campaign13), and minimize costs of appealing directly to voters. Social media in 2004 gave rise to peer-to-peer campaigning in which supporters talked to each other without mediation by the national campaign. While all campaigns employing social media in 2004 experienced increases in interest, numbers of nontraditional supporters, small donors, and local activism, no campaign was able to effectively integrate field activities such as canvassing and get-out-the-vote with the embryonic data collection possibilities implicit in social media.14 The mobilization strategy of the 2004 Bush campaign, based upon neighbors talking to neighbors, became the model for the 2008 Obama strategy of using social media to talk large numbers of online neighbors into voting. All organizations that employed social media used traditional media as well, but the degree of integration between media types remained uneven in 2004.

Social media also affected reporting by traditional mass media during the 2004 election cycle. Print media stories reported on the uses made of social media by campaigns, motivating people to check online offerings.15 Media tended to focus on fundraising and volunteer recruitment when reporting on social media, while few reports covered issues or personal information. Broadcast media reported on internet use by campaigns, but mainly when used to attack an opponent. Traditional media at the time almost completely missed the community building and grassroots use of social media.16

The 2004 election campaign displayed all the factors necessary for effective use of social networks in elections. Internet connections were becoming ubiquitous. Software allowed interactive experiences between campaigns and voters. It was possible to harvest large amounts of data about voters to supplement canvassing on the ground. However, these resources and practices would not see successful integration into core campaign activities until the 2008 election cycle.

1Lee Rainie, Michael Cornfield and John Horrigan, The Internet and Campaign 2004, Pew Internet & American Life Project (March 6, 2005), Washington DC; Joseph Graf, Michael J. Malbin, Grant Reeher, and Costas Panagopoulos, Small Donors and Online Giving: A Study of Donors to the 2004 Presidential Campaigns, The Institute for Politics Democracy & the Internet (Washington DC, March 2006), Washington DC,

2Kenneth L. Hacker et al., “Uses of Computer-Mediated Political Communication in the 1992 Presidential Campaign: A Content Analysis of the Bush, Clinton and Perot Computer Lists,” Communication Research Reports 13, no. 2 (1996): 138; Cary Roberts Frith, “Candidates on the Stump Online: Framing the Internet in the Early Stages of the 2004 Presidential Election.,” in Conference Papers — International Communication Association (presented at the Conference Papers — International Communication Association, International Communication Association, 2005), 1–25.

3Richard Rapaport, “Net Vs Norm: Meet “Click Morris”: How the Web Reshaped Politics,” Forbes 53 (Forbes Inc. 2000).

4Max Fose, “The Web Goes Political.,” World & I 17, no. 2 (February 2002): 38.

5Clive Thompson, “The Early Years,”, accessed September 25, 2014,

6Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, 1st ed (Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984).

7Maninderpal Singh Saini and Gyewon Moon, “Social Networking Sites: A Premise On Enhancement.,” Journal of Internet Banking & Commerce 18, no. 3 (December 2013): 1–15.

8Joe Trippi, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything (New York: ReganBooks 2004), 100.

9Michael Cornfield, The Internet and Campaign 2004: A Look Back at the Campaigners; “A Commentary,” Pew Internet & American Life Project (Washington DC, 2005), 2005/Cornfield_commentary.pdf.pdf; Jeff Howe, “Wired 13.08: The Candidate: Howard Dean,” Online magazine, WIRED, August 2005,

10Stephanie Takaragawa and Victoria Carty, “The 2008 US Presidential Election and New Digital Technologies: Political Campaigns as Social Movements and the Significance of Collective Identity.,” Tamara Journal for Critical Organization Inquiry 10, no. 4 (2012), EBSCO,

11Glen Justice, “Dean Rejects Public Financing in Primaries,” The New York Times, November 9, 2003, sec. U.S.,

12Beth Noveck, “A Democracy of Groups,” First Monday 10, no. 11 (November 7, 2005),

13Joseph Graf, Political Influentials Online in the 2004 Presidential Election., Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet. (Washington DC, February 5, 2004), Washington DC,

14Takaragawa and Carty, “The 2008 US Presidential Election and New Digital Technologies.”

15Mark Western An Nguyen, “The Complementary Relationship between the Internet and Traditional Mass Media: The Case of Online News and Information,” Information Research 11, no. 3 (April 2006),

16Frith, “Candidates on the Stump Online: Framing the Internet in the Early Stages of the 2004 Presidential Election.”