Meetup: Find political soul mates on line!

The latest national internet craze is scheduled for a double billing in Charlottesville in the next week. It’s not virtual quilting or pug-lover bulletin boards-– it’s old-fashioned grass roots politics.
Meetup.com began life a year ago to unite like-minded-people in face-to-face meetings. Aficionados of various– often somewhat eccentric– hues across the country would use the website to choose a local venue and then meet at a given time.
Then Howard Dean discovered it, and both the website and his campaign exploded. Pundits dubbed his “Little engine that could,” and meetup.com claims that in five months it has brought him 90,200 on-line supporters nationwide.
More than 200 of these are in Charlottesville, where they have been meeting on the first Wednesday of the month to write letters to undecided voters in Iowa. The $7.5 million that Dean has raised in contributions in the second quarter of this year, surpassing his Democratic rivals, is a testament to his success in tapping the internet. 
Other politicians have tried to follow his lead, and today all the main contenders in the Democratic primaries have tapped the new tool. There are “Republican Party,” “Anarchy,” and “Rush Limbaugh” meetups too, although these are not as well attended. In Charlottesville, the meetings still focus strictly on candidates for the Democratic primaries.
Friends of John Kerry meet on August 28 at the Mudhouse, and Dean supporters are to gather on September 3. If at least five people RSVP on line, there will also be a Dennis Kucinich meeting on September 4, and one for Wesley Clark on September 8. Members get to vote on whether to gather at Starbucks, Applebee’s, the Gordon Ave. Library, Circuit City, or the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. These in turn pay meetup.com a fee for the privilege, and the meetings themselves are free. 
Meetup.com may be cutting edge, but whether it will really serve candidates is another question. “Meetup.com is best used by candidates with strong, ideologically inspired followings. Howard Dean fits that profile perfectly,” says Larry J. Sabato, director of the UVA Center for Politics. “Anything that strengthens grassroots politics is a good thing. The challenge, though, is to get moderates and centrists– a large majority of Americans– involved as well.”
Kerry and other candidates have been less successful with the site, and in Charlottesville, previous meetups have been cancelled because of insufficient responses. But the website is nevertheless getting to thousands of activists, many of whom are not being reached by more conventional means.
It also continues to appeal to apolitical hobbyists. In Charlottesville, where 72 percent of us showed up at the last presidential election, political meetups hold the top spots, but “Bookcrossing” and “Live Journal” are also very popular.
No doubt a “Favorite Meetups” list can teach you much about a city. In Islamabad, the top spot belongs to fans of the American TV series The Gilmore Girls. 

The John Kerry Meetup is on August 28 at the Mudhouse at the west end of the Downtown Mall at 7pm. Howard Dean’s supporters are to meet on September 3, also at 7pm. The Dennis Kucinich meetup is set for September 4, and the Wesley Clark meetup is tentatively scheduled for September 8. You must sign up at meetup.com  in order to attend – if at least five people register, they will given the venue one week before the event.

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