ARI SHAPIRO, host:
While Democrats and Republicans work together toward a bipartisan solution on the mortgage crisis, there's a very partisan battle on the campaign trail. This campaign began with predictions that activist groups would play an influential role. And so far, no group has had quite the impact that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth did when they attacked Democrat John Kerry's war record four years ago.
But nonprofits are quietly mobilizing, especially on the left. NPR's Peter Overby looked into one network of progressive groups.
PETER OVERBY: Progress Now and its eight affiliates aren't the only network of activist groups on the liberal side, but they offer a new way of trying to shape the debate with a combination of small staffs, low budgets and high tech. Progress Now has been working in Colorado for five years. Listen as its director, Michael Huttner, describes how they take advantage of old media and new technology to gin up interest for an issue.
Mr. MICHAEL HUTTNER (Director, Progress Now): We'll put out a press release for the mainstream media, and then literally hours later, we'll send out an email on the same topic to tens of thousands of people. The press actually get those emails sent to them, and the press decides to write a story. And then when people read the story, then they go to the Web site and even take further action.
OVERBY: Officially, the progress groups aren't political organizations. They operate as nonprofits under Section 501(c) of the tax code. That means they have to talk in terms of issues, not candidates. Still, there's no mistaking where their hearts lie. Progress Now has a Web page called John McBush 2008, linking Republican candidate John McCain to the policies of President Bush. And the Alliance for a Better Minnesota bought TV time for this ad, attacking Republican Senate Norm Coleman.
(Soundbite of political advertisement)
Unidentified Woman: Coleman voted to give oil and gas companies billions of dollars in tax breaks. Maybe that's why oil and gas interests have given Coleman hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
OVERBY: But TV is expensive, and the progress groups don't consider TV ads their main mission, anyway. Again, Progress Now's Michael Huttner.
Mr. HUTTNER: The big hole in the progressive infrastructure that we filled was that at each state, we act almost like a PR firm to help all the different progressive organizations.
OVERBY: The left has never had anything like this, a place in cyberspace for groups to coordinate and deliver their messages to activists. There's nothing like it on the right. The expansion from Progress Now in Colorado to embrace eight groups in various states began in 2006.
Initial financing came from a coalition of big-dollar donors called the Democracy Alliance, which wants to build a long-lasting progressive infrastructure. Progress Ohio Director Brian Rothenberg says the high-tech low-cost approach seems to work.
Mr. BRIAN ROTHENBERG (Director, Progress Ohio): You know, we're in an instant news kind of world now, where you walk downtown, even in Midwestern cities like Columbus, and there are streaming things on the side of buildings that give you news.
OVERBY: But in digital world, Rothenberg says it's hard to know how well any new strategy works. For instance, he says Progress Ohio signed up 150 new activists per day.
Mr. ROTHENBERG: You see exactly who comes to your site. You see exactly how many people click on your issue. You see exactly how many people open an email. So, in that respect, it is very measurable. In the respect of is 150 people a day good, I don't know.
OVERBY: Michael Cornfeld doesn't know either, and he studies online politics as a professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He says it's hard to measure the effect because almost anyone can send out emails.
Professor MICHAEL CORNFELD (Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University): The sticking point is that because of the low costs, you have many more organizations competing for people's attention, and there's little evidence yet that the percentage of voters who are also activists has increased.
OVERBY: But there's also little evidence, according to Huttner, that the progress groups are suffering financially, even though Democratic candidate Barack Obama told his donors just last month not to give money to independent groups. Apparently, they're finding ways to reach donors just fine on their own.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
SHAPIRO: The Center for Investigative Reporting helped to report this piece.