When David Berry opened his Arlington, Va., home to about 20 strangers Tuesday night, they arrived ready to talk through their most deeply held hopes and dreams for the country and the Democratic Party. The conclusion they reached -- that Barack Obama needs to speak more forcefully about tough issues like high fuel prices and water shortages -- will soon be e-mailed to Obama's campaign headquarters.
It may seem like shouting into the wind, but Berry and his friends have reason to hope their voices will be heard.
That's because Berry, a 60-year-old sustainability consultant, was participating in one of thousands of small meetings prompted by the Democratic National Committee to help the party decide its platform this year. The Democrats' nationwide "Listening to America" campaign is just one way that both parties are tapping supporters for input on their party platforms, often using the Internet to connect more directly.
As part of last week's effort, Democrats used mapping technology to help party loyalists find local platform meetings. Typing in a zip code on the Obama campaign Web site garnered a map and listings of nearby meetings, in private homes as well as churches, community centers and pizza parlors. Some of the more than 1,300 meetings were broad and open to everyone, others were just for friends or focused on a specific policy issue or ethnic group. Meeting organizers have been asked to summarize their findings before the Platform Committee meets in Pittsburgh on August 9.
"We don't know how much impact it will have, but we're going to put it in," Berry said after the meeting. "We think they'll be receptive."
For its part, the Republican National Committee is seeking input through a Web site where anyone can express their views by placing comments on issues like judicial nominations or "protecting American values." Registered users -- party officials wouldn't say how many people have joined -- are invited to submit video entries and vote on poll questions throughout the site.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the Platform Committee chairman, lauded the site's ability to bring his committee input from a wide spectrum of people and viewpoints. "We know Washington is not a place for solutions, so we are reaching out across the nation to create a forward-looking platform rooted in our core values with solutions that create prosperity today and for the next generation," he said.
Not long ago, platform building was a much more exclusionary process. "In the old days, we'd do it through a fairly tedious process of regional hearings," said Elaine Kamarck, a senior DNC official who helped write the Democratic platform in 1980, 1996 and 2000. "It tended to get dominated by special interest groups of either party." After the regional meetings, committee members met behind closed doors to hammer out what would become their marching orders for the next four years.
While few people read the party platforms -- the Republican version [PDF] in 2004 was 92 pages, the Democratic one [PDF] 43 pages -- insiders stress the document's importance. "It's your mission statement for your party," said Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "It's the vehicle you use to get involved as an activist in the issues that matter."
In the committee meetings that ultimately decide the platform, members hone the party's precise wording on issues like abortion or gun control, seeking to take into account as wide a cross section of the party as possible. Committee members have in the past been handicapped by time and travel considerations when trying to hear from the party base, but by utilizing new technology, literally anyone can have a voice. "Don't think for a minute this will be ignored," Kamarck said. "It will be studied; there will be a lot of attention paid."
Kamarck, now a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, likened the change to when public comments for federal regulations went online, allowing more people to post their views on issues such as environmental rules. Commenting on federal regulations used to require traveling to Washington to sit in a reading room; now it can all be done virtually.
Drawing more people into the platform process has a particular urgency this year, when both presidential candidates are viewed as outside their party's mainstream on some issues. Obama has expressed opposition to some gun control bans and backs faith-based initiatives; McCain believes in much stricter campaign finance reform than do many Republican Party stalwarts.
Kamarck said that when the candidate and the party clash, the candidate usually wins. "But oftentimes the candidate will have to make some compromise in the platform or show appreciation for the other side's point of view," she said. "A lot of this comes out in the wordsmithing."
Party officials call it unlikely that major, substantive changes in the platform wording will come from the more open process. But they say that seeing which issues top the priority list of the small-group meetings will give them a good indication of where the parties' priorities are.
"I think you'll see issues that are at the forefront of this election cycle be addressed," Dawson said. "I don't think we'll see a lot of things changed, but it's the first time a party has used this type of technology."
It's hard to pin down exactly who will review the online submissions. Democrats will comb through the thousands of summaries received from all of their small meetings, party officials said. While the Republican Platform Committee has not been finalized, party officials said many of the potential members are accessing the site, and more formal ways to condense the responses are being considered. The Committee will meet in St. Paul, Minn., on August 25.
Perhaps more importantly from a party standpoint, the open process allows more people to feel as though they are involved in shaping the message of the campaign. "I've never seen anything quite like this," Berry said, adding that when candidates ask for people's opinion, they're usually looking for donations at the same time. But this effort, he says, is "an opportunity to comment. It's a much wider sweep to give people an opportunity to summarize their views."
Still, Berry is realistic about how loudly he'll be heard: "It's equivalent to the significance of one vote."