Net Election

Can the Net Save McCain in New York?

NEW YORK–Judging from recent opinion polls, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is a significant threat to Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush in the crucial first primary state of New Hampshire.

In New York, however, McCain’s standing in opinion polls is, at the moment, irrelevant–because it’s not clear that he will be on the ballot for the state’s March 7 primary. McCain faces an uphill battle in the Empire State for two important reasons: Getting on New York’s ballot is a notoriously difficult and time-consuming task requiring thousands of petition signatures from all over the state, and the bulk of New York’s Republican Party is backing Bush.

McCain’s New York campaign is betting that it has a secret weapon: the Internet. “The Net is playing a big role in mobilizing our delegates around the state,” says Gerry O’Brien, political director of McCain’s New York campaign.

The McCain campaign has actually had an active office in New York for only a few weeks, and it is in the relatively isolated location of Staten Island, the smallest of New York City’s five boroughs. Nonetheless, the national McCain campaign has been organizing New York supporters for several months via the Internet.

Perhaps alone among the major presidential candidates, McCain’s campaign has a multi-site strategy. The national campaign has a main Web site, and there is also an “interactive” site. The latter features five targeted states, although the McCain campaign says it will “go national” this week for now it aims at Arizona, New York, California, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Residents of those states can sign up with the campaign based on a map of congressional districts, as well as get daily information about campaign appearances in their area. (Clicking on New Hampshire for Dec. 2, for example, shows that McCain will be appearing at the North Hampton Town Hall at 8 a.m. and will then be at the WMUR Presidential Forum in Manchester at 8 p.m.) Allowing potential supporters to register by congressional district gives the local campaigns very targeted databases.

The interactive campaign site was designed by a Maryland-based firm called VirtualSprockets. They use the programming language ColdFusion, which is known for e-mail integration. The campaign paid a few thousand dollars for the initial setup fee and $2,000 per tailored-state setup. The low cost is important for McCain’s effort, because the campaign is focusing the bulk of its advertising dollars on the do-or-die New Hampshire (Feb. 1) and South Carolina (Feb. 19) primaries.

“In 1996, presidential Web sites were more or less Web billboards,” says Max Fose, who runs McCain’s national Web site. “This year, we are not only allowing people to find out about John McCain but trying to push people to be involved.”

Hence, O’Brien says, when he set up shop in New York from the national campaign, he received a database of “a couple thousand” e-mail addresses. That was crucial because, with the regular GOP organization supporting Bush, the New York campaign needed to reach out to people who’ve not necessarily been GOP petition-gatherers before–and thus aren’t on anyone’s mailing or phone lists.

“We’ve had to reach out to retirees, college students, and civic types,” says O’Brien. “The Internet has been a tremendous asset to us, the overwhelming majority of people that will end up being McCain delegates [from New York] came to us through the Internet.”

Will they succeed? Well, the time allotted by the state for gathering petition signatures runs between Nov. 30 and Jan. 6. “We already qualified Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and Staten Island in the first day,” says O’Brien hopefully.