Monday, December 25, 2006

Candidates Turn to Web to Reach Voters

Candidates Turn to Web to Reach Voters
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Al Gore claimed he invented it. John McCain predicted it would revolutionize political campaigning. Howard Dean made it pay - and then some.

Ah, the Internet.

As candidates prepare for the 2008 presidential campaign, the Internet is the new Main Street. An estimated 70 percent of adults in the United States travel the digital highway, still a cheap and largely unregulated medium.

Reaching those potential voters and donors has become an important part of modern politicking. Candidates aggressively compete for the talents of the most creative geeks in politics and develop new ways to exploit the Net.

Republicans have mastered e-mail as the new form of direct-mail campaigns, raising money and pushing a GOP message. Democrats have excelled at raising cash through small-scale donations and making the Net their version of talk radio.

"You have an inexpensive way to have a conversation with people with the propensity to turn out and vote," said Rick Davis, a McCain adviser who managed the Arizona Republican's 2000 presidential campaign.

In that race, McCain predicted that "in the next few years the Internet will completely turn political campaigns upside down."

McCain, the potential front-runner for the 2008 GOP nomination, is among the most tech-savvy could-be White House candidates today. He has retained many hands from his 2000 bid and has recruited some of the top names in online campaigning.

The model for many presidential wannabes is former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. True, Dean was soundly defeated in his race for the 2004 Democratic nomination. But his campaign relied on the Internet to raise an enviable $53 million; more than 60 percent of donors gave less than $200 each.

Lesson learned, potential 2008 campaigns say.

Former Democratic Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the first major candidate to do podcasts when he was running for president in 2004, has recruited Dean's Internet communications director.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who leads the Democratic pack of prospective candidates, hired a pair of online writers for her successful Senate re-election campaign this year and has amassed an e-mailing list.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is quickly building his own mailing list and using others' lists to raise campaign cash. He raised $800,000 for Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., this year using a list.

But the recognized Democratic leader when it comes to the Internet is Sen. John Kerry, his party's 2004 nominee. He has a 3 million-plus e-mail list of supporters, donors and activists.

The Massachusetts senator sent e-mails to supporters more than 300 times between Election Day 2004 and Election Day 2006. He also has used his campaign apparatus to give away $14 million in donations to candidates last cycle. During a two-day period this year, he used his e-mail contacts to raise $900,000 for four Senate candidates.

"This represents the community of activists," said David Thorne, who organized Kerry's 2004 Web strategy and remains an adviser. "These are people who want to be active and supportive of progressive causes. There was no more important progressive cause than getting Bush out of the White House in '04."

Without a major polarizing figure among Republicans in 2008, Thorne doubts Democrats could recreate their Web success.

"I am dubious anyone can build the same kind of list in '08," Thorne said. "There won't be anyone that will create the passion and the intensity that George Bush did in '04."

Among Republicans, the enemy is Sen. Clinton. Anti-Clinton Web sites are popping up on the Internet even though Clinton has not announced she is running.

One site,, is devoted to "rescuing America from the radical ideas of Hillary Clinton." Its financial backer is a donor to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a potential GOP candidate.

"It's an oldie. It's just not golden," said Ann Lewis, Clinton's Senate campaign communications director. "We've never doubted there are people on the other side who will try (to use the Web against us). The Web gives you an ability to respond quickly."

If past is prologue, Clinton will do more than play defense. The Web talent for her Senate campaign included's Peter Daou, blogger Jesse Berney and former Democratic National Committee grassroots director Nancy Eiring.

"The way to look at what we might do is what we just finished doing," Lewis said.

Mike Connell, who ran President Bush's Web strategy in 2000 and 2004, said campaigns still do not spend enough on online efforts despite the obvious returns.

"Too many dollars are being wasted on traditional broadcast advertising," he said. "It used to be three major broadcast networks ... Now we've got an entirely fragmented market, people spread across the entire spectrum of content."

Campaigns are eager to substitute online video for a broadcast version.

"Clearly online video is rapidly chewing away at traditional TV time," said Nikko Mele, Dean's campaign webmaster from 2004. "We are taking time usually spent watching television and watching the Web. It's not clear how campaigns are going to take advantage of that."

The heaviest users of the online video are people age 18-34, according to an Associated Press-AOL poll from this summer. It is an age group with a low, not high, voter turnout record. Also people in this group generally do not give major donations to campaign. But they are the ones who can create a buzz.

"Every trend that existed four years ago exists double-so, triple-so now," Mele said. "There is plenty of opportunity online. It's going to require innovation, risk taking."