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Dean activists found to be party core

Surveyor finds bulk far from disaffected

If the thought of Howard Dean's grass-roots supporters conjures up a bunch of Volvo-driving, Starbucks-sipping, antiwar baby boomers who are new to political activism, you're right and you're wrong.

In what is being described as the first systematic analysis of Dean activists who attend nationwide coffee klatches set up by the online group Meetup.com, Bentley College government professor Christine B. Williams confirmed that Dean's supporters were largely white, middle-aged, upper-middle-class professionals who use the Internet several times a day.

But they were hardly alienated from politics before Dean's insurgency, she said. Indeed, they tended to be liberal Democrats who voted regularly, often volunteered on national and local political campaigns, and supported Al Gore for president in 2000.

They generally liked another past anti-establishment presidential candidate, former Democratic Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, and were evenly divided over two others, Ralph Nader of the Green Party and Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Williams surveyed nearly 600 activists who attended the former Vermont governor's Oct. 1 ``meet-up'' at about 20 venues in 15 states, including five in Massachusetts. The findings, she said, challenge the notion that the Democratic front-runner's supporters are themselves ``mavericks or political newbies.''

``These people are strong Democrats, the people who vote in Democratic primaries, the Democratic core,'' she said at the Waltham campus.

Williams, who has studied the role of the Internet in politics and government, found that the average age of activists at Dean's meet-up was 44 (although it ranged from 12 to 88). Some 91 percent were white. They had an average household income of $67,000 a year.

Most said they followed the news every day in the newspaper and on television, radio, and the Internet. And 75 percent went online several times a day - no surprise, given the prominent role the Web had played in Dean's campaign to raise campaign funds and organize.

Some 84 percent said they voted in all or most federal, state, and local elections. Thirty-nine percent said they had volunteered on political campaigns before. About 71 percent described themselves as liberal or progressive, or both.

Jesse Gordon, the cofounder of MassForDean, a Boston-based group of Dean volunteers, who arranged for the surveys to be distributed from Missoula, Mont., to Norton, Mass., said the results confirm the impression people have of Dean activists, with the notable exception of dispelling the myth they were from outside the Democratic party.

``Most people perceive the Dean movement as filled with disaffected Democrats or people outside the party system, in other words Greens or independents, and that's not the case,'' he said.

Williams acknowledged that the results may say more about Dean activists who go online and attend monthly meet-ups than about his more casual supporters.

``What we don't know is how much is this about the candidate and the campaign, and how much is this about the medium and Meetup,'' said Williams, a native of Chicago who got a taste of political activism as a child in the early 1960s, when Democratic precinct captains handed out campaign buttons to children in her neighborhood.

She hopes to survey supporters of all candidates who hold meet-ups - virtually all the Democrats as well as President Bush - and compare them. The next group will be those attending the Dec. 1 meet-up for retired general Wesley K. Clark.

So far, about 142,000 people have signed up to attend Dean meet-ups, 44,400 for Clark meet-ups, 17,900 for Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich's meet-ups, and 16,100 for Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry's meet-ups, according to Meetup.com.

Meetup.com, a New York-based company, was co-founded in 2002 by Scott Heiferman, 31, a dot-com millionaire who had established two Internet firms in the boom years. The goal was to use the Internet to arrange face-to-face get-togethers of people with common interests instead of the faceless chat rooms that pass as communities in cyberspace.

Heiferman, a native of suburban Chicago, said he was influenced by ``Bowling Alone,'' a 2000 book by Harvard University professor Robert D. Putnam focusing on what he sees as the collapse of community spirit in America.

``Meetup was at its core really a simple idea - to connect people locally,'' Heiferman said in a telephone interview Tuesday from Las Vegas. ``The traditional logic goes that the Internet makes things less local, but why couldn't it make things more local?''

Initially, Meetup.com expected the site would be used mostly by people with a passion for Elvis, or dachshunds, or Dungeons & Dragons. But the presidential candidates, particularly Dean, have harnessed them for their campaigns. Dean supporters, for example, attend meet-ups to exchange ideas, hand-write letters to New Hampshire voters, and distribute campaign literature.

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