Internet Innovations in 2000 Presidential Campaign

George Bush and Al Gore attempted to inspire and mobilize volunteers and contributors through their web sites. Subscribers to campaign e-mail newsletters received frequent updates, were asked to make telephone calls and recruit others.

The campaigns used online databases to build one-to-one relationships with supporters, with customized content for specific groups, such as veterans and students. Visitors could sign up to attend a “cyber fundraiser.” And the campaigns utilized the power of “viral marketing” — word of e-mail. Supporters were urged to send an email to 10 friends, or send an online postcard.

Both parties used the Internet to inspire supporters, mobilize volunteers and raise funds. Each of the two major presidential campaigns collected more than 250,000 e-mail addresses of supporters who agreed to receive frequent messages from the candidates or their surrogates.

In the waning days of the campaign, each supporter was encouraged to forward campaign e-mail to at least 10 friends and associates.

If the half a million Democratic and Republican online activists forwarded e-mail to an average of five friends or associates, 2.5 million voters were reached. That’s not so many by the mass media standards of television, but in a close election, it could have had an impact.

Both Democrats and Republicans engaged in “get-out-the-vote” e-mail forwarding efforts. They e-mailed less committed friends and urged them to vote for specific candidates. These online networks, called “E-Precinct Leaders” by Democrats and “E-Champions” by Republicans, could become a powerful grassroots force, well informed and mobilized at a moment’s notice to lobby for and against issues of importance to the political parties.

Other innovative strategies in Campaign 2000 included:

* online voter registration campaigns that facilitated voter registration for as many as half a million voters.

* proliferation of hundreds of Republican and Democratic discussion groups onto the Internet. If “all politics is local,” and the key to effective political organization is on the local level, party activists were learning that lesson by creating web sites, e-mail newsletters and online discussions. While networking these energetic partisan groups together so they can work together may be similar to “herding cats,” they do represent potentially powerful forces of grassroots activists in both parties

* online town meetings. On a regular basis, some candidates used their web sites to host online town meetings. “Citizens were able to ask questions about the week’s topic before the chat via email or during the chat through the web site. We posted transcripts with in 24 hours after the chat, and they became some of the most frequently accessed pages on the campaign web site,” reports Greg Laynor, Internet coordinator for Barney Brannen, the Democratic candidate for Congress in New Hampshire’s 2nd district. “Community leaders in the district, such as a school board chair and special education teacher, moderated the chats. Consequently, we were able to achieve an effective forum for direct candidate-voter interaction in a ‘citizen-centric’ atmosphere.”

* Flash animation. Consultants debated whether Flash animation was too “high-end” for the majority of computer users, but it clearly grew in popularity in 2000, and will be a significant tool in the future. Mike Panetta is a big fan of Flash. He created numerous Flash animations for a site devoted to defeating Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) and for X-PAC.

* video e-mails from party leaders and candidates. For Rep. Patrick Kennedy, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Democrats.com created a “home-delivery” video e-mail that Internet users with a high-speed connection could view without having to go visit the web. As the number of Internet users with cable modems or fiber-optic connections grows, expect more candidates and party leaders to use this technology.

* development of online phone banks in which supporters downloaded the telephone numbers of voters to call to encourage turnout. The Bush campaign used a Web-enabled software system to conduct volunteer phone calls. The Industry Standard reports that “the system walks the caller through a scripted call and tracks the call’s outcome online in real time. Al Gore’s campaign used e-mail to coordinate phone banking from volunteers’ homes rather than posting numbers on the Net, which the campaign believed raised privacy concerns and opened up the possibility of competition taking those numbers.”

* online voting. Arizona was the first state to experiment with online voting, in its Democratic primary last spring. Sen. John McCain predicts that online voting will be commonplace in the presidential election of 2008.

* instant ebuttals during presidential debates. Both the Gore and the Bush web sites were used extensively to rebut the statements of their opponents, according to Netelection.org, a project of Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, The Center for Governmental Studies, and The Center for Public Integrity.

* a rolling cyberdebate, promoted as “the first online presidential debate in our history,” in which the candidates participate on a daily basis from October 1 through November 7, answering voters’ questions. The web site was launched by the Markle Foundation. Netelection’s Christopher Hunter evaluated the cyberdebate as a mixed success.

* pungent opposition web sites and online issue advocacy. Against Bush, the Democrats’ produced “IknowWhatYouDidinTexas.com” and “Millionaires for Bush.”

Al Gore Used Internet in Innovative Ways

Al Gore was aggressive in using the Internet as a campaign tool. The Vice President, a computer user since the 1980s, scanned as many as 200 e-mails each day from his laptop or Palm Pilot. Clearly the most technologically literate of the candidates, he carried a Plam Pilot with him everywhere.

Yet Gore took repeated hits from Republicans and the media for claiming to have “taken the initiative in inventing the Internet.” The quote was simplified into pompous braggadocio — “I invented the Internet” — and mercilessly mocked in GOP television ads, by Bush in the debates, and by media as well. Gore’s exaggeration obscured the real contribution he made to the early development of the Internet, and he never quite recovered from the perception that he had made a gaffe.

Gore’s webmaster Ben Green said the Gore campaign integrated the Internet into its’ day-to-day operations. A “Gore 2000” FastTV viewer offered clips, speeches and commercials. For geeks curious about the code that built the site, the Gore campaign utilized an open source code. In the code is a friendly message from Gore. A staff of four assisted Green in the web site development, and they updated the site constantly from 7 AM to 2 AM.

For their innovation in creating the Gore 2000 Mobile Edition for handheld devices, Green and web development consultants Chris Casey and Jeremy Dorin won a Golden Dot Award from the Politics Online Conference.

Based on the e-mails through the site’s “town hall” section, “there were lots of instances where people came to the site undecided and ended up supporting Gore,” Green is quoted in an E-Voter Institute study measuring the Internet’s impact on the 2000 election. While the evidence is anecdotal, “based on the e-mail I was seeing, yet, that was happening. Was it happening enough on a broad scale to tip the balance of the election? Maybe — in a state where you only win by 500 votes or lose by 200 votes.” Nearly one million questions or comments were posted to the Town Hall section of the Gore site.

In the primary campaign, Gore garnered press attention by seeking an online debate with Bill Bradley. He sent Bradley a video e-mail with skeptical questions about his health plan.

And while the mainstream media was under-estimating Gore, labeling him a drab and boring campaigner, certain to lose the New Hampshire primary to Bradley, certain to lose the general election to Bush by a wide margin, the Vice President was able to lay out a real vision for the future on his campaign web site, to bypass the mainstream media and communicate directly with supporters.

Gore supporters on the Internet could chat and exchange instant messages with each other. On the Gore web site, they could create their own web pages in support of the Vice President. “We had close to 40,000 people build their own web pages on the Gore site, effectiely producing campaign literature and e-mailing it out to other people,” Green said. They could log on to 24 special pages customized to their professional interests as, for example, firefighters or teachers. “We had, you know, a Pittsburgh page and a whole Pittsburgh e-mail distribution list,” Green noted. During the primaries, the campaign organized, through the web, almost 1,000 debate-watch parties.

Internet Gave McCain a Cachet in Nomination Fight

John McCain was the first presidential candidate to demonstrate what a powerful fundraising tool the Internet could be. Far, far behind George W. Bush in traditional fundraising, John McCain could not raise money fast enough by traditional means to go one-on-one against Bush. But after McCain’s surprising if not shocking 20-point victory over Bush in the New Hampshire primary, millions poured into his campaign through his web site, and tens of thousands of people volunteered online.

Over the Internet, McCain raised an historic $6.4 million and organized over 142,000 volunteers nationwide, according to his webmaster Max Fose. To accomplish this, he spent less than half a million on his Internet operations. Considering the amount raised, the investment was well worth it — far less overhead and less risk than traditional fundraising, where it’s easy to spend 80 cents for every dollar raised.

After the campaign, McCain parlayed the support he garnered in the primaries into a “national crusade… to take back our government from the special interests and return it to the American people.” This online political action committee — called “Straight Talk America” — supports candidates and advances the issues McCain believes in. It may be a model for other losing candidates who continue to have a passionate following.

In addition to Fose, McCain’s Internet consultants included a Virginia company called Hockaday Donatelli Campaign Solutions, founded by Tom Hockaday and Becki Donatelli. Donatelli said the Web is the most powerful tool now available to campaigns. “If we broadcast a 30-second ad, we have you for 30 seconds,” she said. But she’s found the average amount of time spent on McCain’s site was 14 minutes. “We can vest people in our campaign in those 14 minutes,” she said.

Another strategist behind McCain’s online effort was Tom Yeatts of Virtual Sprockets, an Internet consulting company in suburban Maryland. Yeatts specializes in building online networks for for Republicans, and is especially active in helping the Maryland Republican Party stage a comeback in a state where Democrats dominate. His efforts for McCain were part of his overall strategy of “getting the message of a new GOP to the citizens…and involving them on a personal level.”

George W. Bush: Online Early, But Initially Out to Lunch?

In contrast to McCain, George W. Bush early on seemed decidedly behind the Internet curve. Not only did he spend relatively little on his Internet presence compared to the massive war chest he accumulated, his campaign consultants minimized its’ importance. Though the campaign was rolling in dough before the primaries began, they hadn’t planned on devoting many resources to the Internet before McCain scored big by defeating Bush in New Hampshire. Early on, Bush’s campaign manager, Karl Rove, was wedded to traditional direct mail, and was highly skeptical that the Internet would have a significant impact in the 2000 presidential campaign.

When satirist Zack Exley of Massachusetts posted www.gwbush.com, containing a faked-up picture of Bush snorting cocaine, Bush publicly denounced Exley, calling him a “garbage man,” and drawing even more attention to the site. “There ought to be limits on freedom,” Bush said. (Source. Bush’s attorney wrote a letter to the Federal Elections Commission urging the government to shut the site down because it was libelous and voters might confuse the spoof site with the real one.

Exley got far more mileage out of Bush’s statements and his heavy-handed response than if Bush had ignored the site all along. He then circulated an online petition to stop Bush from trying to “censor the Internet.” The conservative American Spectator called Bush’s obsession with the parody site, “Dubya’s dumbest move.” The New York Times editorialized that Bush’s reaction was “a textbook case for campaigns on the wrong way to handle Internet critics.”

Eleven months after the Bush campaign filed its complaint, the Federal Elections Commission decided that the spoof site was neither libelous or a violation of FEC rules.

Since web sites and e-mail newsletters don’t cost much to produce, they shouldn’t be narrowly regulated; amateurs shouldn’t have to register their web sites as political committees. As Will Rodgeron observed in an Interactive Week article on the case, “Policing the Net is not only futile, but pointless, the commission seems to say. Unlike broadcast, which operates in an environment of scarcity, the Internet is ubiquitous. To fight bad speech one needs only more speech; massive resources such as those enjoyed by media giants are suddenly unnecessary.”

Bush Recouped By Posting Contributor Lists Online, Other Innovations

The Bush campaign did recoup respect from online strategists when he became the first candidate to voluntarily disclose his campaign contributors on his web site. This proved to be good public relations.

Instead of waiting for the media to demand such disclosure, and to create the image of defensiveness over the massive amounts of money Bush has raised — more than $50 million, enough to disdain public financing and the spending limits that go along with them — he published the list on the web and claimed he was very proud that more than 80,000 people had given money to his campaign, demonstrating that he wasn’t just the candidate of monied elites but had strong grassroots support.

After Bush disclosed his contributors, the mainstream media began to pressure other candidates to do the same, by asking why they hadn’t done it, and implicitly, what did they have to hide. At the least, Bush’s tactic took him off the defensive about amassing such a war chest.

At the end of the campaign, Bush’s move to disclose donors on his web site won a Golden Dot Award from the Politics Online Conference in the category of Public Accountability.

And by the time the fall campaign was underway, Bush’s web site had improved dramatically. Greg Sedberry, one of the consulting webmasters, worked with a team of about 10 people to continually update the site daily and track Bush’s progress on the campaign trail. The Bush campaign worked with 50 state webmasters to tailor state pages to the needs and interests of residents, and created pages in its “voter outreach” section to target appeals to African Americans, Latinos, educators, farmers, students, veterans, women and young professionals.

Bush’s site also had a popular tax calculator that claims to quickly estimate how much users will save if Bush’s tax cut plan is enacted.

In 2000, the Bush campaign raised $3.6 million online before the election and $2.4 million more during the Florida recount, according to the Associated Press.

How to Campaign On the Internet

As a consultant to Democrats.com, I wrote a piece advising campaigns on how to campaign on the Internet. The essence of my advice is that a web site and Internet e-mail are new tools to achieve old-fashioned and time-honored political goals — ultimately, to build relationships, to let a candidate listen to the voters and to help those constituents get to know the candidates in new ways. It is a far better medium for relationship- building than 30-second ads, posters or brochures.

Frankly, few campaigns to my knowledge in 2000 devoted resources to the Internet as a way of building relationships. They were stuck in “broadcast mentality,” thinking of their web site as their own little television program rather than as an interactive tool. Only one of my clients, a losing congressional candidate in New York, bothered to personally answer e-mail from voters. They seemed thrilled when he did respond to them personally — he got a lot of mileage out of it. Congressional and gubernatorial campaigns still devote most of their resources to advertising on television in the last weeks of the campaign.

Wired Candidates, On the Campaign Trail

The 2000 Campaign produced several models of cyber-savvy candidates. Some of them were not successful, for reasons that have little to do with the Internet. No one should be naive enough to believe this medium is a “magic bullet” that can overcome all other odds.

The Industry Standard focused on Jean Elliott Brown in South Florida, a public relations executive who ran a technologically sophisticated congressional campaign and raised a significant amount of money online. Incumbent Mark Foley easily beat her, but she has already made history as one of the first candidates inspired to run by the people she “met” on the Internet. Jeff Stanger, President of Net Campaign, the firm that built Brown’s web site and helped her create an Internet strategy, racked up several awards at the Politics Online conference

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