Clicking for President

WASHINGTON -- Howard Dean's got the online buzz; Dennis Kucinich, the house parties; and Wesley Clark has an Emmy-award filmmaker documenting his every move for the WesCam.

Welcome to the age of the wired campaign.

The strategies may sound like they'd be used by production teams shooting a reality show about college fraternities, but the new political reality is that the 2004 presidential candidates are wiring their campaigns to reach voters in cyberspace.

The Net's Political Milestone

The Internet has become vital to campaigns. Experts are calling the 2003-2004 presidential election a watershed for the Internet as the medium transforms campaigning.

Many compare it to the way television forever changed politics when the 1960 presidential debates between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon were broadcasted. These days, nearly every presidential campaign has an Internet strategy chief.

Unlike television, the Internet is an interactive medium. It gives candidates new ways to communicate with voters. The inverse is also true: To some extent, the Internet is giving voters control of the campaigns.

"The biggest thing the Internet has done is to provide an alternative model for raising money," says Carol Darr, who directs the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet at George Washington University.

Dean's online fund-raising success is a prime example: $11 million in online donations flowed into his war chest between April and September. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, 55 percent of the total $25 million raised by Dean came from contributions under $200.

Small, online donors are proving to be a viable alternative to more wealthy contributors. If this is just the beginning of online giving, it could challenge the focus on deep-pocketed fund raising.

Typically, candidates turn to well-funded interest groups so they can raise funds quickly, says Darr, a former political operative who was general counsel to the Democratic National Committee and to the Carter-Mondale and Dukasis-Benson campaigns. She says a presidential campaign needs at least $49 million in the bank or the "best political operatives won't sign up with you."

"Big money has had such a stranglehold on presidential campaigns, but the Internet levels the playing field," Darr says. Now that election fund raising may no longer be the sole province of big money, the trade-offs of taking money from interest groups may diminish.

It also helps jump-start a campaign: Though he entered the race relatively late, Clark has raised $3.4 million in the last nine months, 30 to 40 percent of it online.

Bolstering Grassroots Democracy?

The current campaigns have stretched the Internet's potential to help voters organize, volunteer, and mobilize, granting them more clout than ever.

For example, the "Draft Clark" movement began online in April, months before Clark announced his candidacy in September. John Hlinko created DraftWesleyClark.com because he was "intrigued and impressed" with Clark. Within 90 days, its traffic multiplied. Today, Hlinko is the Clarke campaign's director of Internet strategy.

The Internet's grassroots approach gives voters a channel to help define the candidate's message and the agenda.

Traditionally, presidential campaigns are conducted in a top-down fashion, with the lieutenants keeping a tight lid on the campaign to "stay on message." But on the freewheeling Internet, anything goes. Voters can weigh in on the campaign's direction, frequently through ubiquitous Web site blogs. Several campaigns' Internet operatives say they have culled bright ideas from the Net's various interactive forums.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Lieberman does not have blogs, but he still uses the Net to get suggestions. Before a debate, his site solicits voter input to help the Connecticut senator prepare, says Mike Liddell, the campaign's Internet strategy director.

Online Approaches

Campaign chiefs are drawing from Internet marketing, adopting viral marketing tactics, and leveraging the Internet to build relationships.

Bush-Cheney campaign e-campaign manager Chuck DeFeo says the focus is on spreading Bush's messages through evangelism, noting that one-third of the site's visitors are referrals. To encourage such virtual word of mouth, the Bush-Cheney site offers a photo album of President Bush that people can send to friends and families.

The campaign's centerpiece is about building person-to-person relationships, DeFeo says. "It's neighbors telling neighbors" to volunteer for the Bush campaign and friends telling friends about Bush's messages, he adds. "It's not the president spreading the message." With more than 6 million supporters who get e-mail from the campaign, Bush may not need to say much.

The Internet headquarters of Democratic hopeful John Kerry is staffed by 20 people who think of supporters as customers. At the campaign's "customer service" desk, five staff members answer thousands of e-mail messages daily, says Sanford Dickert, a former Silicon Valley technologist with a Stanford University Ph.D. in engineering, and the campaign's chief technology officer. The site even uses a customer resource management package, common to business enterprises, to provide "targeted" answers to the e-mailed questions it gets on the issues of the day.

"I come from industry," Dickert says, of his approach. He says the number of site visitors has shot up since a recent redesign. And after tinkering with the online donation steps, Dickert says the conversion rate has quadrupled.

If Kerry's fully equipped Internet operation is state-of-the-art, then Kucinich's is more like a scrappy start-up.

Claudia Slate, who lives in a straw-bale house with no running water on the outskirts of a Lakota tribe reservation in South Dakota, is the campaign's "virtual outreach coordinator." Her job is to monitor and "eavesdrop" on the more than 200 Kucinich discussion groups on Yahoo.

"We don't control what people say," says Slate, an online activist since 1984 when she and others operated pre-Internet electronic bulletin boards. "I watch and read so I know what our supporters are saying and doing."

From her remote location, Slate can spread the word. When a supporter complained that a cable television station wouldn't cover a Kucinich event, Slate told wired supporters to hound the station. Within hours, the campaign's press secretary told Slate to yank her campaign: Media calls requesting interviews with Kucinich were flooding his press office.

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