Net Election

The Business of Net Campaigns

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

Twelve years ago I worked at a small, left-leaning think tank in New York City. As the 1988 presidential primary election approached, we thought the voters might want to differentiate between the various candidates. So we drew up 15 questions, covering everything from reflagging oil tankers in the Persian Gulf (a hot issue at the time) to gay and lesbian rights.

We then mailed letters to the dozen or so declared candidates from both parties and requested position statements from their campaigns. We deliberately cc’d the issues managers, figuring that this clever move would expedite the responses. It didn’t. The Republicans practically ignored us. The Democrats had to be wooed, cajoled, and mildly threatened before they coughed up their answers. Ultimately, we printed a decent-sized booklet and sold several thousand copies at $10 apiece. It was a modest contribution to the cause of an informed electorate, and it yielded an equally modest return on the investment of our 100 or so hard-worked hours.

Today it would take just a couple of hours for a person with a Web connection and a printer to produce a similar document for the 2000 presidential race. Each of the declared presidential candidates maintains a sophisticated Web site that details positions on a wide range of critical issues. (Granted, if you visit, click on “Issues,” and read Pat Buchanan’s statement on the environment, you may find the air a bit thin. But this is presidential politics, and vague positions are hardly unique to cyberspace.)

As with other areas of the Net, e-mail is the great connector. Any campaign can now take a press release that at one time would have gone to a few dozen political reporters and e-mail it to tens of thousands, even millions, of Internet users. That remarkable development helps to bind a portion of the electorate more tightly to the campaigns. But we’re still talking about a press release, and any reporter will tell you that the value of such releases is inversely proportional to the volume received.

That’s just one illustration of how the Net’s contributions to American Democracy remains nascent and hard to define. While the 2000 campaign will be the first presidential contest in which the Web plays a significant role, it is unclear how profound that role will be (see Jacob Weisberg’s accompanying piece, ” The Net’s 1960?“).

One of the premises of the Standard is that the Internet has seeped into and changed every important business in the United States–and will soon have the same effect around the world. Politics is not exempt. Although it’s all too often overlooked as a business, American politics is a multibillion-dollar industry that employs millions. So it’s the Standard’s job to cover how the Internet will shape it. And that’s the mandate for our once-a-week contribution to “Net Election.”

PoliticsMeets E-commerce

What does politics-as-Net-business mean? In the most salient case, campaigns themselves are businesses (albeit short-lived ones that cannot legally make a profit). As of mid-July, more than six months before anyone could cast a vote for Bill Bradley, the former basketball star had raised more than $240,000 through his Web site. That’s only about 2 percent of his contributions. But the site wasn’t operational until January. Moreover, it wasn’t until June that the federal government said it would match online credit card contributions with public funds, just as it matches money raised the old-fashioned way. With that decision, every campaign has been rethinking its Internet fund-raising strategies. We’ll be closely examining their renewed efforts.

One question that leaps to mind is, “Are there viable forms of e-commerce that play off of a political audience?” To date, the answer is essentially no. Sure, you can connect to the Arizona Democratic Party’s online gift shop. But how many donkey Beanie Babies do you think have been sold there? eBay is not yet disturbed.

Still, the tip of political e-commerce is beginning to poke up through the Web’s surface. In May, Texas Gov. George W. Bush tried to quash the parody site, saying infamously, “There ought to be limits to freedom.” The result? The site got 6 million hits in a month. Net logic holds that eyeballs equal dollars, and sure enough the controversial site was soon peddling T-shirts and bumper stickers featuring Bush’s quote. Another site looking to cash in on the campaign is It’s not officially affiliated with the Gore campaign, but the site sells a wide array of Gore paraphernalia–everything from buttons to gourmet coffee. And it gives a package of free collectibles to any Webmaster who picks up its banner.

OnlineAdvertising Gets Political

The Internet has already begun to transform the general advertising industry, and it will soon hold sway over the tens of millions of dollars spent every electoral season on television and radio ads. Web advertising holds the strange position of being almost entirely unregulated. Fraud and defamation laws presumably apply to Net advertising, just as they do to all advertising. But the specific sections of communications law that constrain political speech in the electronic media–including provisions for equal time for all candidates–do not apply to the Internet.

Consider how such loopholes can alter the electronic media landscape: Each weekday, Steve Forbes records a brief commentary about his pertinent issues. The Forbes campaign claims that more than 160 stations in 45 states “carry” this commentary. (Just because they carry it, of course, doesn’t mean they actually play it five times a week.) According to federal regulations, beginning 45 days before a primary, any radio station that carries a prepared audio message from a presidential candidate is required to give equal time to any other candidate who requests it. As a practical matter, most radio stations in that situation would simply drop the Forbes editorials. But his Web site can continue to pump out a Netcast with no interference.

Changes like these should spur “Net piggybacking” throughout the 2000 race. Here’s how it works: Say a candidate is adamantly opposed to any form of new taxes, regardless of whether they are advocated by the opponent. So the candidate crafts a 15-second TV spot that does not directly attack her opponent but warns viewers of an ominous, high-tax future and instructs them to punch up, where they’ll find a complete history of the opponent’s record on taxation. Viewers might be asked to fill out petitions with their ZIP codes and e-mail addresses, which would be used to alert them to the ad’s next installment. These techniques have already been used in a number of Senate and congressional campaigns.

Finally, we’ll also be watching the Net polling, Net focus groups, and Net organizing that follow the flow of money around an election. Our goal, shared with editorial partner Slate, is to capture the way the unfolding 2000 presidential race looks from the Web. Whether you’re a political junkie or not, we hope you’ll find Net Election informative, enlightening, and fun. At least, as much fun as presidential politics will allow.