San Diego Union Tribune

April 11, 2004

Campaigns embrace Internet as essential, powerful medium


WASHINGTON As political ads go, John Kerry's latest a TV spot that claims President Bush is sending jobs overseas is relatively sedate, an almost gentlemanly jab at Republican trade policies.

But a visit to the Internet shows the campaign of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee can hit a lot harder: The Kerry Web site features a video portraying Bush as a naive schoolboy whose math project, a budget plan, is marred by errors.

This election year, the Internet finally may have matured as a political fund-raising, advertising and organizational tool. That evolution is creating new pools of donors, galvanizing neophytes into political activism and allowing politicians to communicate with voters in ways they might never dare on the public airwaves.

Political campaigns have been using the Internet since at least 1992, but experts say campaigns only now are making it as vital a component of election strategy as the TV ad, the radio spot, the campaign flier, the cocktail fund-raiser and the get-out-the-vote phone call.

"Until this election cycle, ... the role of the Internet was not thought of at the same level as traditional campaign tactics," said Jonah Seiger, founder of Connections Media, a media consulting firm that works largely with Democrats. "Now, the Internet has been integrated into the overall campaign structure ... and its role is being considered at the early stages, rather than as an afterthought."

Sixty-three percent of American adults, or 126 million, use the Internet. That is a 47 percent jump from three years ago, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. On a typical day, 66 million Americans go online. For a growing number of these Americans, the Internet is now their newspaper, their marketplace, their library, their school and their entertainment center.

Not only does the Internet provide political strategists with a captive audience, it is a medium that unlike TV or radio can be used to accomplish several tasks at once.

"The Internet is now the tactical nuclear weapon for any candidate or political cause," said Larry Purpuro, whose company, Rightclick Strategies, provides Web consulting to more than 50 Republicans in Congress. "It is the single-most effective and economical medium to do what campaigns have to do: communicate, fund-raise and organize."

From the home page on Kerry's campaign Web site, visitors can make a donation, view online ads, find other Kerry supporters in the neighborhood and click on a map to learn how many jobs have been lost because of Bush's economic policies, Kerry contends in each state.

From Bush's campaign site, one can donate, download a voter registration application, find the nearest Students for Bush group, find phone numbers for talk radio shows and take part in online chats with Bush operatives.

With extensive e-mail lists and a few mouse clicks, the Bush campaign can communicate instantly with 6 million supporters. It can explain new campaign positions, ask for money or, as it did in February, direct people to a Web video in which a woman is told that Kerry has received "more special interest money than any other senator" despite his vow to sweep out special-interest influence in Washington.

The Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet says the Internet has ignited activism where it didn't exist before. About 44 percent of people using the Internet this year to support and donate to candidates, read political logs and take part in discussions of politics have never before been politically involved in traditional ways.

"They have not previously worked for a campaign, made a campaign donation or attended a campaign event," the Washington, D.C.-based institute reported.

The presidential campaigns ran a few Internet ads in 2000. This year, some experts predict that federal, state and local campaigns will spend a collective $25 million on online ads.

Compared with the rising costs of TV ads and direct mail, Internet advertising is cheap. An Internet ad can focus on specific groups of voters simply by targeting a Web site frequented by, say, professional working mothers in their 30s who earn more than $60,000 and like to buy clothes online.

"You can target very discreetly, and you can do it kind of under the radar," Seiger said.

Using Internet pop-up ads, the type that pop up when you enter a Web site, the Republican National Committee in March peppered 1,400 sites with its message that Kerry last year voted against spending $87 billion for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Internet also is exempt from new laws requiring candidates to "stand by" their ads with statements such as, "I'm John Kerry, and I approve this message." That lack of ownership means the tone of Web-based ads could become nastier than those on the public airwaves, said one expert on Internet campaigning.

"Some of the online ads are more overtly negative," said Diana Owen, a Georgetown University political science professor and co-author of "New Media in American Politics." "This way, they can keep the really negative ads out of the view of the (mainstream) public and still get their message out (to activists)."

Michael Cornfield, a George Washington University professor and author of "Politics Moves Online," said online advertising hasn't reached the level of television, where campaigns are expected this year to spend a collective $1.3 billion.

Some say it won't be long before Web-based advertising takes off in the way online campaign donating has.

To date, Bush has raised $4.2 million via the Internet. In a two-day period last month, Kerry raised $10 million online. In the first quarter of this year, the Democratic National Committee raised more money online than it did in all of 2002, said DNC spokesman Tony Welch.

It was former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean who dramatically demonstrated the power of the Internet by raising a record-breaking $40 million for his Democratic presidential campaign in 2003, much of it small contributions over the Internet.

Before the Internet, Purpuro said, only about 1 percent of the electorate contributed to candidates. He has no numbers indicating the percentage that now donates online, but he predicts the Internet could create a whole new class of donors, people of modest means who might have never before given money to a candidate.

"I think it's obvious for all to see that the ability to instantly click a donate button, give a credit card and choose a dollar amount is going to facilitate more and more people giving money," Purpuro said.