Net Election

McCain’s Web Explosion

{{Industy Standard Gif#34651}} Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

{{Slate’s Political Roundup#73099}}

CHARLESTON, S.C.—In the first “Net Election” column back in September, I made the prediction that the Internet probably would not have a decisive impact on the 2000 presidential race. The best shot at proving me wrong now belongs to John McCain. If McCain survives South Carolina and goes on to defeat George W. Bush for the Republican nomination—still a very big if—the Internet may eventually be judged not just a contributing factor, but an essential, enabling condition of his victory.

Six months ago, no one would have pegged McCain as the most cybersavvy of this year’s crop of candidates. At 63, he is the oldest of the bunch and because of his war injuries, he is limited in his ability to wield a keyboard. But McCain’s job as chairman of the Senate commerce committee forced him to learn about the Internet early on, and young Web entrepreneurs such as Jerry Yang and Jeff Bezos fascinate him. Well before he announced his exploratory committee, McCain had assimilated the notion that the Web could be vital to the kind of insurgent, anti-establishment campaign he wanted to run. In December 1998, he sent his longtime political aide Wes Gullett to Minnesota to study Jesse Ventura’s successful gubernatorial campaign, which was the first to use the Web in an effective and innovative way. “Wes went up to Minnesota and talked to Ventura’s people,” McCain told reporters on the Straight Talk Express yesterday. “That’s really where we got the idea.”

In hopes of replicating Ventura’s success, McCain hired as his Internet manager Max Fose, a 28-year-old political consultant he calls a “real geek.” Thanks to Fose and Gullett, the McCain campaign has become the most eager experimenter with Web advertising, Web organizing, and Web fund raising. “Even more impressive than the money is the way we can communicate with people,” McCain said on the bus. “We can communicate with them eight to 10 times a day. You know how much it cost to communicate with someone eight times a day before the Internet? It’s going to change politics.”

Last night McCain participated in another Web first: the first-ever “cyberfundraiser.” At the event, he boasted about the latest returns from his Web site. In the first eight days following the New Hampshire primary, he raised $2.6 million on the Internet, for a Web total of $4.1 million from 40,000 individual donors. According to Fose, money is still coming in from the candidate’s Web site at the rate of about $100,000 a day. In addition, the Web site has had 10 million hits in the week following New Hampshire. Some 100,000 people have clicked a button asking for volunteers who want to be actively involved with McCain’s campaign. One of them was Andy Grove, the chairman of Intel.

McCain’s Web money has proved better than other kinds of money for all the reasons Eve Gerber explained in this column a few weeks ago. As McCain told me on the bus, it’s cleaner money, because the donor isn’t shaking your hand and reminding you about a bill he wants you to vote against. “It’s smaller donors,” McCain said. “And clearly, it’s less personal.” It’s new money: Thirty-nine percent of those who answer the questionnaire say they’ve never given to a political campaign before. Because donations are paid by credit card, they’re available for use immediately. This is a huge advantage in the tightly spaced primary calendar. And last, since between 80 percent and 85 percent of the contributions are small enough to be eligible for matching funds, the effect is multiplied. When you count the match, the Web has brought McCain in excess of $7 million, more than a quarter of what he has raised overall. Simply put, it is Web money that has enabled his campaign to remain economically competitive with George W. Bush.

Last night’s event added another $50,000 to the total. With 500 passwords available at $100 a head, it quickly sold out. Political cyberevents, such as Clinton’s “first presidential Internet chat” in November, tend to be technically clunky and substantively soporific. But this one actually came off without a hitch on a 56K modem and was a reasonable facsimile of the kind of public meeting McCain has been holding in the early primary states. McCain and his wife, Cindy, sat on a stage set with a lot of scaffolding and laptops at the College of Charleston. Cindy read questions to her husband off a laptop screen. The candidate’s answers were broadcast by streaming media to the participants. The dialogue was punctuated with live polls (sample question: “How often do you visit the McCain 2000 Web site?”) and a door-prize giveaway of three autographed copies of McCain’s book, Faith of My Fathers. The event should be available for viewing by noncontributors on the McCain 2000 Web site later today.

Not surprisingly, the questions were all friendly, but the conversation didn’t degenerate into a love-fest. Unlike Clinton, who needs a live crowd for stimulation, McCain seemed able to engage completely with written queries. Much of the questioning was about the Internet and especially its role in politics. “I see the Internet as revolutionizing politics,” McCain declared, endorsing the eventual prospect of Internet voting and explaining that he thought the Web would lead to a better-informed electorate as well as better-informed elected officials. He also gave the Web extensive credit for getting him where he is in the campaign. “I would argue that one of the major reasons we’ve had the success we’ve had so far is because of the Internet,” he said.

Back on the bus, McCain remarked again on a Web wave he never expected. “After all this is all over, we’re going to have some interesting analyses of this campaign,” he said. “It was a kind of explosion on the Internet. Hits on our Web sites, contributions—it just exploded.”