Net Election

Forget the Ballot Box, the GOP Wants Your Inbox

The Republican Party is on the verge of using a new technology that might just revamp e-fund raising.

For all the plaudits that John McCain’s Web site received for its fund-raising prowess, the stubborn fact remains that McCain lost the money battle as decidedly as he lost the primaries. Internet hype notwithstanding, the presumed nominees of both parties are candidates who raised the vast majority of their money the old-fashioned way.

The Net is not yet a guaranteed fund-raiser. That’s one reason why nearly half of all political consultants and members of the high-tech elite interviewed by the  Democracy Online Project said the Internet has been only “somewhat important” in this presidential campaign. (Nearly a third said “not too important,” compared with just 13 percent who said “very important.”)

But here’s a prediction: At some point before the general election, Internet fund raising is going to get a whole lot more effective. And while both parties will improve, the GOP is going to be in the lead.

Why: Because George W. Bush is a proven cash magnet? No: Because the GOP is about to introduce a superior technology, one that a top GOP official modestly calls “probably the best political organizing tool since the telephone.”

The difficulty that all the candidates have had with Internet fund raising is that they conducted it through their Web sites. As a fund-raising tool, the Web site might have some powerful advantages over direct mail and phone banking, but it’s not ideal. The biggest drawback is that a Web site is what Netheads call a “pull” technology—that is, in order to get the donation, you’ve first got to pull the would-be donor to the site.

As any Web publisher can tell you, attracting Net surfers to your site is a difficult task, and none of the candidates proved especially good at it. If the numbers gathered by PC Data Online are reliable, a good week for a presidential candidate thus far in the contest has meant attracting between 150,000 and 200,000 unique visitors, or about 0.2 percent of the entire Web audience. When you figure that only a small percentage of that tiny audience is actually going to pull out their credit cards, the limits of Web-site fund raising becomes clear.

Nearly all the candidates supplemented their “pull” technology with the “push” technology of e-mail. The hope was that e-mail recipients would be motivated and sophisticated enough to click on hyperlinks that would take them to the sites where they can make donations.

The push-pull blend works to some degree—but what if the donations could be made right inside the e-mail, without the recipient ever having to leave his or her inbox?

That’s the direction the GOP is headed. Beginning next week, the Republican National Committee will begin experimenting with “Zaplets,” a new e-mail technology that allows the recipient to respond to polls and databases directly within e-mail.

According to Larry Purpuro, deputy chief of staff for the Republican National Committee, more than 25,000 Republican activists will receive an e-mail in the first week of April that allows them to answer survey questions within the body of the e-mail. Each time a recipient reopens the e-mail, the database will be updated with responses from all recipients—a real-time poll conducted entirely inside an e-mail.

Although Purpuro would not divulge the specific contents of the e-mail survey, he said that getting feedback on banner ads and issue statements are among the anticipated uses. And he confirmed that “it has potential use as a fund-raising tool, too.”

Zaplets are the product of a Redwood Shores, Calif., company called FireDrop, which has received backing from the well-established venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. FireDrop’s private-sector partners include ZDNet and The Hunger Site. The Zaplet technology—assuming it actually works as promised—has major potential uses both in and out of presidential politics: polling, remote document-sharing, petition-signing, even auctions. It provides the same level of security that most Web sites use.

The relationship between the RNC and FireDrop grew out of the party’s “e-GOP” effort, a multimillion-dollar high-tech project that included opening an RNC office in Silicon Valley. (Interestingly, FireDrop’s president is a former career officer in the Central Intelligence Agency.) FireDrop declined to say how much the GOP is paying for the service but confirmed that it will charge the party a monthly usage fee for Zaplets. A spokeswoman said the company has had “conversations” with the Democratic Party but has yet to reach any agreement.

Is Zaplet the killer app that political fund-raisers have been looking for? No one will know for sure for a few months. But allowing people to give money right inside their e-mail is state-of-the-art convenience. As one FireDrop official notes, “Most heavy Internet users spend more time in their inboxes than they do in their browsers.”