By the time Election Day arrives, millions of Americans will have contributed to a presidential candidate this year. Hundreds of political organizations -- from the Sierra Club to the NRA, from MoveOn.org to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- will have taken an active part in the campaign, supported by Americans from every part of the political spectrum. All of this is democracy in action, and it is so commonplace that we take it for granted. Yet this kind of mass citizen involvement in the political process is a relatively recent phenomenon, spanning less than a half-century of our nation's history.

How did it happen? And what does it suggest for this election, and for presidential elections to come?

The answers can be found in the rise of what we conservatives call the "alternative" media -- beginning with the conservative movement's development of political direct mail in the 1960s, followed by the growth of talk radio and cable TV news in the 1990s and, since then, by the remarkable role of the Internet in the political process. In this year's presidential election, it is the alternative media that are largely framing the issues, engaging the public, raising money and getting out the vote.

Whatever the outcome on Nov. 2, this election will be remembered as the year when these alternative media all came together to change how politics in America is practiced.

One question remains: Will the prime beneficiary be conservatives, who pioneered the use of political direct mail as a response to the liberal hegemony of the 1960s, or liberals, who were the first to recognize the Internet's fundraising potential?

A bit of history helps in explaining the rise of alternative media. The 1950s through the 1970s were the "good old days" for liberals. Both major parties were under the control of their liberal wings, except for a few months in 1964 when conservatives managed to seize the GOP nomination for Arizona's Barry Goldwater, with disastrous results at the polls. The conservatives of 1964 learned firsthand that they couldn't expect to get their message across to voters as long as the liberal media decided what issues would be discussed. After Goldwater's defeat, we conservatives realized that we had to find ways around the "gatekeepers" in the liberal media.

And that's what we did. After the 1964 race, we began using political direct mail to communicate with each other and build a sustained movement. All of this was done under the radar of the liberal establishment, which didn't take seriously a vehicle they denigrated as "junk mail." Thanks to their myopic negligence, conservatives had a 15-year head start in learning how to use direct mail to achieve political power.

Two revolutions have transformed America in the past 25 years -- the conservative political revolution and the alternative media revolution that gave conservatives their public voice. The first could not have succeeded without the second.

The exact moment when liberals were jolted awake was the night of Nov. 4, 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president and the GOP captured the Senate. "Aha!" they said, "so that's what Viguerie and friends have been up to."

Following that election, the liberals pursued direct mail with dedication and marketing smarts to build up their powerful environmental, consumer, watchdog, civil rights and other groups. Only the Democratic Party failed to use direct mail in any meaningful way, largely because of its longstanding dependence on labor unions and special interest donors. The GOP, on the other hand, learned from the conservatives and used direct mail to steadily assume control in Washington and in many of the nation's statehouses.

The second of the alternative media -- talk radio -- emerged after the Federal Communication Commission's repeal of the so-called Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Radio stations now could air opinion shows without worrying about giving equal time to every viewpoint in Babylon. Talk radio was not foreordained to be a conservative medium, but a mature conservative movement had created the mass grass-roots audience that made Rush Limbaugh and others profit centers for bottom-line-oriented station managers.

Talk radio gave conservatism something vital: Contact with individual Americans that was more intimate and engaging than print could be. The new medium had an unprecedented impact in helping the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in 1994, for the first time in more than four decades.

Two years later, conservatives turned their attention to making cable TV news their third big alternative medium. Conservatives owe a great debt of gratitude to Ted Turner -- yes, the same Ted Turner who once called Christianity "a religion for losers." It was Turner who took the financial risk in 1980 to prove that 24-hour cable news was the wave of the future. Turner created the Cable News Network in his liberal image, but he also opened the way for another entrepreneur, Rupert Murdoch, to beat him at his own game.

Murdoch's Fox News "branded" itself as the first network to give conservatives an even break, and in marketing, there's nothing more important than being the first to lock in a brand identification. No matter how much CNN and MSNBC try to imitate Fox, Fox continues to pull ahead of them.

But as powerful as each of these three alternative media are, none empower the individual voter as effectively and as forcefully as the Internet does. Your modem is your equalizer, your cyber-Colt .45. You have a direct line -- with no intermediaries or filters -- to any publication or Web site around the world, to other citizens who share your interests and viewpoints, to government bureaucrats, to your political representatives, to the stores you want to do business with -- you name it.

Conservatives were quick to see this potential. As a result, Joe and Elizabeth Farah, with a staff of about 25 at WorldNetDaily, and Chris Ruddy, with a staff of about 50 at NewsMax, each publish an online newspaper that draws a larger Internet audience than the Web sites of the Dallas Morning News or the Philadelphia Inquirer, according to several online rating services. Matt Drudge, essentially all by himself, gets more daily Internet traffic than CBS News does. Incredible! Drudge wasn't so wacky, after all, when he proclaimed this the age when "every citizen can be a reporter."

The story as we've told it so far has been a tale of one conservative success after another in the realm of alternative media. That may now be coming to an end. Conservatives were unbeatable in alternative media when they were underdogs or perceived themselves as underdogs. Now conservatives pretty much are the establishment, and are demoralized trying to defend their party's big-spending record of the past four years, not to mention the quagmire in Iraq. Meanwhile, Democrats and liberals are united in their passion to unseat President Bush.

Whichever party wins, however, there's no doubt about the importance of the alternative media in driving this election:

* The Internet. The new kid in the neighborhood is also the rowdiest and least predictable. The greatest impact of the Internet this past year has been as a tool for political organizing and fundraising. This began when Democrat Howard Dean, managed by Joe Trippi, became the first presidential candidate to raise most of his money (more than $40 million) through the Internet. Some 60 percent of Dean's contributions were for $200 or less, compared with only 17 percent for Bush. Democratic nominee John Kerry has become even more successful, with a massive 7-to-1 advantage over the Republicans in that medium.

Conservatives have shown no ability or desire to match these liberal successes in using the Internet for political organization. This could be a critical mistake. Liberals woke up to the power of political direct mail when Reagan was elected. It could take a Kerry victory to awaken conservatives from their slumber.

* Talk radio. Talk radio is notorious for its "water cooler" impact -- defining how people react to issues as they talk about them with colleagues and friends. In 2000, for example, the mainstream media, with few exceptions, declared Al Gore the winner of the first presidential debate. Instant overnight polls gave Gore a strong victory. Then, in the 12 days after George Bush's "loss," he went from about five percentage points behind in the polls to about five points ahead. How could he gain 10 points in such a short time if he lost the debate?

The answer was the alternative media, especially talk radio. Gore's expressions, misstatements, off-putting sighs and condescending looks when Bush was speaking -- all that was discussed around-the-clock on conservative talk radio. The "experts" had backed Gore on the night of the debate, but the people who gathered around water coolers and kitchen tables had the last word.

Conservatives continue to reign supreme in talk radio. Liberal efforts such as Air America just aren't getting the audiences they need to survive beyond this election year. Either liberal hosts aren't that interesting, or liberal audiences aren't that interested in confrontational radio. Meanwhile, none other than Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. has made a radio star out of Alan Colmes, the liberal foil to Sean Hannity on Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes." Colmes is now carried by 70 radio stations, which seems to make Murdoch the most successful promoter of liberal talk radio in the nation. Isn't that a hoot!

* Cable news. Cable TV is becoming the American people's medium of choice for political news. The broadcast networks have been losing the political audience for the past two decades, and that trend is accelerating. Fox News had more viewers during the Republican convention than any of the old-line broadcast networks, even though it reaches 25 million fewer homes.

That doesn't matter, however, to the fossils at the Commission on Presidential Debates. In selecting moderators for this year's debates, they chose two PBS faces and two broadcast network faces. We predict this is the last stand of the old guard. By 2008, cable news will be even more powerful; if it's shut out again, the cable news networks may decide to hold their own debates, with an audience share the candidates cannot afford to pass up.

* Direct mail. While not as sexy as the Internet, political direct mail is an enormous player in this election. We estimate that 5,800,000,000 letters (that's 5.8 billion) will be mailed this year by the two parties, their candidates and their allies. If it weren't for politics, all you'd be getting in your mailbox would be flyers for Chinese takeout.

The big news this year is the Democratic Party's burst of activity after years of lying comatose outside the post office. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe has confirmed to us that the Democrats mailed more fundraising letters in the first four months of this year than they did during the entire 1990s.

DNC consultant Hal Malchow has told us that the results have been so good that they sent one fundraising mailing to every Democrat in the nation over the age of 40 whom they could locate on a list -- and came out with a profit. With all their experience and expertise in direct mail, the Republicans have never done that.

The result: Democrats have reached parity with the Republicans in direct mail. Adding in the Internet and phone banks, Kerry is out-raising Bush 2 to 1 in the alternative media, and three-quarters of his contributions are coming from small donors. Direct mail and the Internet are creating a new mass base for the Democrats.The growth of these four alternative media has profound implications. An elitist clique, no matter how large or powerful, cannot control the news today. The biggest, most powerful government in American history cannot control the flow of bad news from Iraq. The biggest, most powerful TV news department cannot control the instantaneous fact-checking by hundreds of bloggers.

Just as the first alternative medium brought conservatives to power in 1980, so today the big four -- the Internet, cable TV news, talk radio and political direct mail -- stand to determine who wins the White House and the Congress. Conservatives dominate talk radio and cable TV news, while liberals have pulled even on political direct mail and have far surpassed conservatives in using the Internet for fundraising and organization. Whichever candidate prevails this year, we already know the alternative media will be big winners.

Authors' e-mail: authors@rightturn.us

Richard Viguerie has run direct-mail campaigns for conservative candidates for more than 40 years. David Franke has worked in alternative media as a writer and an editor. They are co-authors of "America's Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power" (Bonus Books).