The new soap box
- By William Matthews
- Mar 05, 2000
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
"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
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
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.
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
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,"
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
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
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.