Clicking for President

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Innovations Online

The challenge for the campaign's Internet gurus is how to continually challenge donors and engage visitors.

Clark's "Zip Drive" offered the ultimate prize to donors within the postal Zip code that raised the most money: Winners got to rub elbows with the general at a private reception.

Over at the Kucinich camp, it's party, party, party. The Web site calls for numerous fund-raising house parties, offering party kits like banners, flyers, and sign-up sheets. To date, house parties have generated some $400,000. On Kucinich's 57th birthday in October, the campaign raised $70,000 after soliciting online donations in the amount of $57. Dean used the same tactic when he recently turned 55.

As a publicity generator, blogs are a critical component of campaign strategy. Dean's site, the first with a blog, started with 3000 daily readers. By November, the number had increased tenfold to 30,000.

Still, the importance of blogs may be overestimated, as unofficial campaign blogs proliferate. "When a blog is a dialogue" they become potent, says Michael Cornfield, research director at George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet. Otherwise, they just tend to be rants and raves.

More Popular Than Elvis

The "meetup" is another important Internet vehicle. At Meetup, users can designate local meetings to cavort with others who share similar interests, including support for a presidential candidate.

Dean leads in Meetups, with more than 140,000 registered members. Clark is second and Kucinich is third, with Hlinko noting that Clark's meetups have surpassed other marquee meetups.

"We are truly bigger than Elvis now," he said. "We even passed 'newly single,' and I thought we'd never pass them."

Still, the meetup memberships and the blogs don't tell the whole story about the success of a candidate's online campaign. Some are just naturals when it comes to online campaigning.

"The Internet has provided a chance for marginal candidates to catch on," Cornfield says.

Candidates who are considered outsiders may have an edge tapping into discontented voters online. As an unknown, Dean knew how to capitalize on people's anger, some experts say. "Dean has profited from being the angriest guy in the field and emerging as the strong anti-Bush candidate," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Cornfield adds that "the underdogs do well and are favored by the Net--they're individuals bucking the system. They're risk-takers."

The Virtual Winner

By almost every measure, especially online fund raising, Dean leads the pack.

According to Alexa, an search engine, the Democratic presidential candidates generating the most Web traffic are Dean, Clark, and Dick Gephardt. The Bush-Cheney campaign site falls closely behind Clark.

Although it shows vast potential to raise voter interest, the Internet is not changing people's political habits, just giving them a different outlet, says Bruce Bimber, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and author of the book Campaigning Online.

Bimber finds that people tend to go directly to the Web sites of candidates they already support, rather than shop online for a candidate. The behavior departs from the popular use of the Internet as a tool for product research and comparison shopping.

Bimber notes a few exceptions to his finding, such as the 2000 Ralph Nader site that attracted many undecided voters in the 2000 presidential election.

Back to Basics

Also, while the Internet is gaining prominence, television continues to rule. An irony of Dean's success raising money online is that he is expected to spend most of it on TV ads.

"It's just a rule of thumb that candidates spend 50 percent of their money in television ads," Rainie says. "This tells you how important television is." He notes that more than 88 percent of U.S. households own television sets, compared to 63 percent that own PCs.

The trend apparently varies with geography. Research firm Initiative Media finds that Californians increasingly visit the Internet for political information. Although television is still the primary source of information (at 16 percent versus 14 percent for the Net), many experts say the Internet is quickly gaining ground in the political scheme.

The novelty of online innovations is expected to wear off and become standard for political marketing. "Over time, the importance of the Internet will recede ... and there will be tremendous convergence," Rainie says.

But in the end, there's only so much the Internet can do for a candidate. "You've got to have a candidate who touches a nerve," Darr says.

Campaign officials for Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri, and Reverend Al Sharpton of New York did not respond to inquiries for this story. The Internet initiative at Ambassador Carol Moseley-Braun's campaign has yet to take center stage, says campaign manager Patricia Ireland.

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