Politics and the Internet: Strange Bedfellows?

Although a stereotype exists that the political sector is slow to change, once it embraces a new approach, it does so wholeheartedly. The presidential primary race of 2003 is a prime example of this full-speed-ahead mentality: Politicians have discovered the Internet.

The best example to date of the new, wired politician is Howard Dean, who harnessed the power of the Internet so well that he has vaulted into the first tier of the presidential primary race, ahead of several other Democratic hopefuls. That leapfrog maneuver is just the beginning of what lies ahead, analysts say.

“As society goes, so goes politics,” Gartner vice president Christopher Baum told the E-Commerce Times. “Not only will the Internet continue to be a factor in these races, it’s just going to get more and more important.”

Online On-Ramp

Many U.S. residents have been online for years now, but political candidates have seemed slower than other groups to take advantage of the wired realm.

For example, the 2000 presidential election marked the first time the Internet was acknowledged by politicians on any noticeable level. Until then, most candidates seemed to view the online world largely as a meeting place for e-shoppers and a haven for hobbyists and B2B exchanges.

In 2000, according to Baum, Clinton and Gore began throwing position papers onto a Web site, and the real Internet race began.

Since those early days, it has become standard, even mandatory, for all politicos to have a Web site and someone to run it for them.

The most savvy politicians also have built Internet strategies that involve e-mail campaigns, online advertising and use of rich media on their sites.

Super Highway

This year might mark the largest-ever turning point for wired campaigning. David Mark, editor-in-chief of Campaigns & Elections Magazine, told the E-Commerce Times that online outreach has been used to stir up grassroots supporters since McCain’s presidential bid. But it is Dean who has made truly giant strides.

“What he’s done is mobilized the grassroots supporters,” Mark said. “A big bulk of his contributions came from online donations. He was obscure in this race until suddenly he raised so much on the Internet and the momentum began to build from that.”

To date, Dean has raised more than US$4 million in online contributions, and the money keeps rolling in. His campaign is also distinctive for its heavy use of such online tactics as blogs, wireless updates, and facilitation of supporter meetings through the Meetup.com site. By sending out waves of e-mail and asking supporters to solicit their friends for funds, Dean became king of the donation hill.

Just PayPal It

Gartner’s Baum noted that for Dean and other candidates, the future of Internet donations looks bright. “With places like PayPal making it easier than ever before to donate, you’ll see online donations increasing from this point on,” he said. “People can just take money from their eBay transaction and give it to a candidate. That’s pretty compelling.”

Other candidates already have followed in Dean’s footsteps, most notably John Edwards. Mark said that of all the Democratic primary candidates, Edwards might be most creative in terms of using the Internet to garner attention.

“Edwards has a more comprehensive donation section on the site,” Mark said. “He also has quirky things, like a contest where you can win a T-shirt by sending in a photograph of yourself. They put the photo on the site in a special section for supporters.”

Keeping Tradition Alive

Although today’s candidates have learned to use the Internet for more than position papers, there are still some areas where they fear to tread, such as using their sites for heavy-duty e-commerce.

Bumper stickers, T-shirts and other items are available at present, but no candidate has chosen to cash in on product sales, and it is likely that none ever will.

“They want to look serious,” Mark said. “They want to sell things, but they can’t be seen as shills, so the e-commerce aspect is downplayed.”

Likewise, as experimental as candidates may get with content, they tend to stick with similar color schemes. Not too surprisingly, their primary colors are red, white and blue.

“They’re getting more sophisticated in terms of technology,” Mark said, “but they’re also getting more generic in terms of all looking the same. There’s not a lot of individuality.”

Under Construction

As the 2004 campaign heats up, politics and the Internet increasingly will go together. In fact, future campaigns may be more Internet-based than anything else.

A survey by the Online Publishers Association found that more than two out of three U.S. voters are likely to turn to the Internet to find information about a given candidate. As a result, the OPA sees great potential for online political ad spending.

“We saw it with Schwarzenegger in California when he targeted his e-mails to California residents,” OPA executive director Michael Zimbalist told the E-Commerce Times.

Zimbalist noted that future campaigns could use precise geotargeting for e-mail campaigns that can focus down to a precinct level. He noted that candidates know which states are crucial, and even which areas of those states are undecided. By targeting e-mail campaigns based on ZIP codes, a candidate can zero in on those voters without expensive TV ads, direct mail or door-to-door baby kissing.

“Soon, the success of a politician will depend on how he or she manages to integrate the Internet into the campaign,” Zimbalist said. “Those who do it well will prosper.”

1 Comment

  • Seems like every other political headline is crediting the Dean success with his ability to "tap the power of the Internet." I do not dispute that Dean’s campaign has been effective in using the Internet to accelerate the development of his grassroots campaign.
    My issue is with the mainstream media’s conclusion that the Dean Internet phenomenon is the ONLY reason for his success. Sure, the Internet has given birth to its share (or more) of fads. But there is a difference between a dancing baby that you forward to all your friends and an email with some straight talk about changing our country for the better that asks for money to help do it.
    The article itself backs up my theory that Dean’s success comes from ideas more than Internet prowess. You talk about the cool stuff you can do on John Edwards’ web site. Sounds like fun. But where is Edwards in the polls, or in the fundraising totals?
    Todd Randolph
    Boston MA

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