The new soap box

With the campaign season virtually upon him, John Peterson decided this

was the year to rewire his re-election strategy. So at 5 p.m. on Feb.

29, Peterson sat down at a computer keyboard, and after Webcasting a video

announcing his bid for a third term in the House of Representatives, the

Pennsylvania Republican chatted with reporters about his upcoming campaign.

Launching his re-election bid on the Internet put Peterson a few paces

ahead of most of his congressional colleagues. But almost everyone running

for Congress this year has turned the World Wide Web into a campaign worker.

The Web serves as a collection plate, a news outlet and a billboard

for position papers. It helps recruit campaign volunteers and generate crowds

at campaign appearances. It works as a photo album for displaying flattering

snapshots and video clips from the campaign trail.

The Web has stepped up as a force in national politics and cannot be

ignored. Campaigning on the Internet "is going to be huge this year," said

Daniel Bennett, a former congressional staffer and now a "cyberlobbyist"

for a company called e-advocates. "It will be the case that no legitimate

candidate for Congress will be without a Web site."

Politics is Digital

The Web's political influence was underscored by the stunning Internet

fund-raising successes reported last month by presidential candidate John

McCain. McCain's campaign claims to have raised about $4 million through

its Web site in the three weeks following his victory in the Feb. 1 New

Hampshire Republican primary.

"Until this year, a campaign Web site was something a candidate wanted

to show that he was technologically with it," said Doug Bailey, president

of FreedomChannel.com, a Web site devoted to political campaigns. "This

year, it really is different."

At the presidential level, Web sites are not only generating contributions,

they're recruiting volunteers. In McCain's case, they've even persuaded

some Democrats to re-register as Republicans and vote in primaries, he said.

Although congressional campaign veterans say it's not clear how effective

the Internet will be below the presidential level, no one advises ignoring

it.

"My general advice is you have to have a Web site," said an adviser

to Democratic congressional candidates. "You can't get away anymore with

not having an Internet presence."

However, don't expect the Internet to perform election miracles. Here's

why: Each congressional district contains about 535,000 people — about 300,000

are voters, among whom only about 40,000 have not decided whom to vote

for, the adviser said. "So the actual number of people you want to reach

is small. It's hard to target those people with a Web site."

The best uses for the Web are organizing campaign events and sending

supporters e-mail updates, he said.

More Than Fund-Raising

The Internet has made Democratic congressional candidate Adam Schiff

a believer. The California state senator credits his Web site with raising

$150,000 so far in his effort to unseat Republican Rep. James Rogan this

fall. But the Internet is also "a very significant factor" in other campaign

activities, he said.

Schiff's Web site enables him to communicate instantly and inexpensively

with constituents. "I can give them much more information about the campaign

that would otherwise be impossible on other formats," Schiff said.

The site presents Schiff's positions on issues, information on bills

he authored in the California State Senate, photos from the campaign trail,

ratings from interest groups, press releases and other information.

A poll enables visitors to vote on local issues, such as whether they

support or oppose an expansion of the Burbank airport. Visitors can fill

out a brief form to receive campaign updates by e-mail. Visitors also can

click on buttons to learn more about Schiff, volunteer, learn about his

opponent and — of course — make a contribution. When campaigning, Schiff

said, he urges the people he meets to visit his Web site, and many tell

him they already have. "I think in the 21st century, if your campaign fails

to have a Web site, you do not have a complete campaign," he said.

But Schiff's experience may be unusual. The California district he's

seeking to represent includes Pasadena, Glendale and Burbank, and is home

to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cal Tech, numerous high-tech companies

and TV and movie studios — all of which employ tech-savvy people.

Just two years ago, congressional campaigns were a much different story.

A detailed study of Internet campaigning in 1998 revealed that Web sites

were fairly ineffective at raising money or attracting campaign volunteers,

said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential

Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.

Most of the sites were "primitive," best used as "command and control"

devices for issuing instructions to campaign volunteers and staffers, Thurber

said.

Web sites are much more advanced during this campaign cycle. Some feature

audio and video clips of the candidates along with the more traditional

position papers, press releases and appearance schedules. Some candidates

are beginning to use chat rooms to answer constituents' questions and video

feeds to conduct town hall meetings. "I think the Internet will be increasingly

effective as a way to develop grassroots campaigning," Thurber said.

Senate Republicans are so convinced of the value of Web campaigning

that the National Republican Senatorial Committee is requiring all Senate

race nominees to have Web sites, said Stuart Roy, committee spokesman.

Web sites have proven most valuable for keeping in contact with supporters.

Electronic newsletters and e-mail are used to respond quickly to opponents'

campaign claims and to generate crowds for campaign events, he said. And

e-mail is crucial when it is time to get out the vote.

In 1996, Web campaigning was a novelty, Roy said. In 1998, it was useful.

This year, it is essential. "In some cases, it could potentially turn the

outcome of the race."

The importance of the Internet made Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.) a convert.

Like most members of Congress in 1998, Petterson did not use the Internet

in his re-election campaign. And after winning with 85 percent of the vote

in 1998, Peterson, who faces no Democratic opponent this year, probably

could safely skip Web campaigning this year. He's doing it nonetheless.

"It's partly show and tell," Peterson said, adding that he hopes his

online campaign will show the people of his sprawling rural district the

potential value of the Internet.

Peterson's district spreads out over 17 counties in north-central Pennsylvania,

covering nearly a quarter of the state. Dotted with struggling small towns

and pockets of poverty, it is the nation's most rural congressional district

east of the Mississippi River.

The large district makes campaigning time-consuming and expensive, said

Jennifer Bennett, Peterson's press secretary. The Internet promises to save

time and money.

But more important to Peterson is the lesson the Internet campaign can

teach rural Pennsylvanians. The Internet may be the salvation for rural

economies, he argued. "This whole e-commerce thing, as we get into it, can

be very helpful," said Peterson, who was a supermarket owner before becoming

a congressman.

Failure to adapt to the information superhighway may hurt in the future

as much as not having concrete highways hurt in the past, he said.

Getting Started

For many candidates, the most important impact of the Internet is on

the bottom line of their campaign finance reports. Compared with TV, radio

and newspaper ads, the Internet is cheap.

Useful, attractive Web sites can be set up at a cost ranging from a

few hundred to a few thousand dollars and maintained for a few hundred dollars

a day, campaign advisers said. Emilienne Ireland, president of the political

Web site company Campaign Advantage, advises congressional candidates to

spend 2 percent to 3 percent of their campaign budget on Web campaigning.

That means $15,000 to $20,000 for typical House races and $100,000 to $150,000

for an average Senate contest.

According to Thurber, Vice President and Democratic presidential front-runner

Al Gore spent $92,000 on Internet campaigning during the first nine months

of 1999. Gore's rival, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, spent more than

twice as much — $197,000. On the Republican side, Texas Gov. George W. Bush

outspent Arizona Sen. McCain $153,000 to $90,000, Thurber said.

By the time the presidential campaign ends, the candidates may spend

as much as $500,000 on their Web sites, he said. But compared with the $20

million to $30 million they will spend on radio and TV advertising, the

Web is cheap.

One of the reasons TV, radio and newspaper ads are so expensive is that

they reach so many people. In many races that's wasteful. Using such media

to get their messages across to voters in their districts, candidates can

wind up paying to broadcast to thousands of people who live outside their

districts and sometimes in other states.

With the Internet, it is possible to buy advertising so highly targeted

that banner ads on Web sites will appear on computer screens of people who

live only in a specific congressional district, said e-advocates' Bennett.

Another appeal of Internet campaigning is that it provides voters with

information they want when they want it. Web sites run around-the-clock,

and they let users select find information they want to receive and skip

information they don't want. The best sites also invite voters to request

more information, comment by e-mail and — of course — make donations by

credit card.

However, unlike TV and radio, which are present in virtually every home,

Internet access remains far from universal. According to the Commerce Department,

only about 25 percent to 35 percent of households in most states have access

to the Internet.

On the other hand, those who use the Internet tend to be better educated,

better paid and more likely to vote. According to a survey by the Pew Research

Center, 52 percent of the voting population has access to the Internet at

home or at work. The Internet is more heavily used by young people, and

according to Thurber, there are indications that Internet is turning more

18- to 30-year-olds into voters.

In addition to candidates' Web sites, the number of unaligned political

Internet sites that provide news, opinions and information about politicians

and political races have proliferated.

FreedomChannel.com, Voter.com, Grassroots.com, SpeakOut.com and PoliticalWag.com,

all offer video- on-demand of candidates, minute-to-minute coverage of

primaries and a continuous stream of political news and commentary. Some

of those sites provide detailed information about candidates running in

congressional and even local races.

Such Web sites "take the pain out of doing research," Bennett said.

Instead of scanning newspapers or calling party organizations for information,

which might take days, "you can type your Zip code into a Web page and get

it all in five minutes."

The sites can be a blessing and a curse for politicians. Although they

provide another source for information, "it's up to the candidates to know

where the sites are and to make sure they accurately reflect their positions,"

Bennett said.

For candidates, "being knowledgeable about the Internet has really changed,"

he said. "In the past, it was enough to have a geek on the campaign staff

who knows HTML. Now the entire organization needs to be Web-aware. The finance

guy needs to understand the Web" to garner online contributions, and "the

press secretary has to understand how to use the Web to get good media coverage."

Politics a Booming E-Business

For a glimpse of how the Web will influence future campaigns, just ask

Gary Paquin. When campaigning against Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) in

the 1998 Republican primary, Paquin used e-mail to turn out supporters at

campaign stops.

After spending $63,000, Paquin gave up his effort to defeat Chenoweth,

but the race reinforced his conviction that the Internet has enormous potential

in political campaigns. While running against Chenoweth, Paquin also was

setting up Netivation.com, an Idaho-based Internet company that offers political

candidates a comprehensive range of campaign services. Netivation will set

up and run campaign Web sites, manage online fund-raising and furnish campaign

management software that helps with chores from coordinating campaign volunteers

to filing Federal Election Commission reports.

Paquin has built Netivation into a major player among political Internet

companies. After going public last June, Netivation launched a buying binge,

acquiring a half-dozen other political Internet companies, such as FECInfo.com,

which posts campaign finance information; VoteNet.com, a political news,

opinion and information site; and politicallyblack.com, which focuses on

minority politics.

Netivation counts as clients the Republican and Democratic parties in

Delaware and Virginia, Republicans in Alaska and South Carolina, and Democrats

in Arkansas as well as individual congressional candidates.

Like many Internet ventures, Netivation is losing money. But with billions

of dollars spent each year on local, state and national elections, the Web

is sure to become a bigger political player in the future.

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