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Muscling Meetups Into a National Presidential Caucus

Organizers of the latest online political initiative hope to trump the early primary season by holding a nationwide presidential caucus on Dec. 7.

The plan is to build on the more than five million people who used the Internet in the 2004 election to organize political meetups, town hall meetings and house parties.

Described as "part mass straw poll, part mass focus group," the National Presidential Caucus (NPC) calls for people to set up local groups across the country on the same day as Democrat, Republican or Open caucuses. Once the meetings are over, the NPC plans to publish the presidential choices and most critical issues of the caucuses on its Web site.

"Our democratic process, as currently practiced, has proven unsatisfactory to the great majority of Americans," said Don Means of Digital Village and the national coordinator of the NPC.

"Even with hopeful new signs of Internet-enabled participation, our national elections remain essentially poll-driven, mass media campaigns and little more than an ugly spectator sport, though one with enormous stakes."

The first presidential primary of the presidential election season is set for January 14 in Iowa.

On Feb 5, 19 states will hold primaries, a so-called "national primary day" for America. Means and other political activists fear this short, intense official voting period will catch the public unprepared.

"If we're going to do this, we have even more need to be prepared," Means said. "We want to give choice to people who are willing to turn out in a more rational program and publish what they say to the body politic."

Means, who was Meetup.com's senior political advisor in 2003-2004 election cycle, said the idea of a national presidential caucus would have been unthinkable four years ago, but the Internet "created these really easy ways to meet. It's gone from non-existent to a phenomena in just four years."

To organize the NPC, online caucus registration opens Sept. 3. Local volunteers will be encouraged to set up local caucuses. On Oct. 6, a preliminary "straw poll" will be held as part of a shakedown cruise to allow feedback and improvements to the process before the Dec. 7 NPC.

NPC caucuses will be two-hour meetings anytime between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. local time on National Caucus Day. Organizers will facilitate a discussion round where participants may speak about their most important issues and to establish a group consensus on the top two or three issues for that caucus. A second round of discussion will he held to express presidential candidate preferences.

"The Internet is transforming political processes all over the world, especially democratic ones," Phil Noble, the founder of Politics Online and a partner in the NPC, said in a statement.

"The National Presidential Caucus is that rare combination of the newest digital tools for online participation with the oldest form of communication, face to face."

James Fishkin, the director of Stanford University's Center for Deliberative Democracy, added in his own statement that the NPC was an "unprecedented opportunity to combine citizen deliberation with mass participation."

Fishkin said the NPC organizers have agreed to make data from its Dec. 7 exit polls available to Stanford.

Fishkin said he was interested in two basic questions: "When citizens discuss the issues and become more informed do they change their views? Does it make a difference whether or not participants vote by secret ballot, as in most American elections or vote publicly, as is the common practice in events like the Iowa Caucuses?"

Means said he had no idea how many people will ultimately participate in the NPC.

"Having never done this, we have nothing to go on," Means said. He called the five million people who participated in the 2004 meetups, "newly-minted, self directed folks who don't need anyone's approval and they have lots of tools to do it."

The five million of 2004 represents about five percent of those who voted, but Means said, "one person going to a caucus is worth more than many votes because they will work for you and give money."