The race for online cash

Presidential candidates hustle for money on the newest battleground -- the Internet.

October 25, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Y2K computer test for presidential candidates is fast approaching. It will occur not on New Year's Day, but exactly one month later.

The Internet has become the hot new battleground of the 2000 campaign. Democratic and Republican contenders say they've recruited thousands of supporters on the Web and generated more than $1.5 million in online contributions -- much of it through secure servers on their official campaign Web sites.

But on Feb. 1, e-campaigning could face its toughest test and greatest opportunity.

That's primary day in New Hampshire, where front-runners often get tripped up and insurgents catch fire. Capitalizing on that overnight success has often frustrated the winners, however, because traditional fund raising can take considerable time and organization.

The Internet could change all that.

"If you win New Hampshire, the real key is being ready to drink from the fire hose on the day after," explains Mike Murphy, a strategist for Sen. John McCain's Republican presidential campaign. "If you've got a Web site and a credit-card system [for contributions], $3 million to $4 million should show up very quickly."

Of course, no one knows if that prediction, like most estimates of the Internet's potential, is wildly optimistic.

"This is so unprecedented that we don't have a guidebook to map this out," says Lynn Reed, an Internet consultant to Democrat Bill Bradley's campaign.

Until now, at least, the results are far outrunning expectations.

"I don't think anybody would have expected in April that we were going to raise three-quarters of a million dollars online," Reed says of Bradley's campaign, which is setting records for online political fund raising. "There is a huge potential here for this thing to explode."

The success of online fund raising closely parallels the growth of e-commerce. Four years ago, no presidential candidates collected contributions over the Internet. This year, between 1 percent and 4 percent of campaign dollars have come in via the Web -- a small but promising share.

In the last presidential race, the typical candidate's Web site -- if there was one -- was little more than an online brochure. This time, every candidate has at least one official site.

These online headquarters are increasingly sophisticated, with eye-catching graphics and gimmicks, multiple avenues to click through and, usually, up-to-date information on the candidate's activities, speeches and supporters.

And, as Texas Gov. George W. Bush learned, these sites are more liable to be a target of unauthorized break-ins. The Bush site was disrupted by hackers last week, and aides say steps have been taken to prevent a repeat.

Webmasters for the presidential candidates concede that they're inventing the industry of online solicitation as they go along.

"We're in completely new territory," says Reed, adding that the Bradley campaign is developing a strategy for using e-mail and other forms of electronic advertising to solicit money and support.

Some techniques are becoming increasingly common. Pop-up windows urge politically minded Web visitors to make a contribution. Online stores bring in additional campaign dollars. Bush's Web site features a section for Hispanics that includes video of Bush speaking Spanish -- and a Spanish-language online contribution form.

Like the direct-mail appeal to which it's often compared, online political fund raising is particularly good at attracting small, repeat contributors whose donations can add up over the course of the campaign.

An analysis of 3,800 online contributors to the McCain campaign found that they are younger -- more than half are younger than 44 -- than the typical political donor. They may also be newcomers to political giving; one-third said they had made no campaign contribution of any kind during the previous 12 months.

On McCain's site, campaign videos (which cost almost nothing to reproduce and are given by the thousands in states like New Hampshire) are hawked for $25. T-shirts go for $15. About 1,000 people have made purchases, with the money going directly to the campaign.

Candidates are also searching for ways to lure visitors to their sites. Republican Steve Forbes has placed banner ads on financial Web sites, as well as on sites devoted to political news in key primary and caucus states. Because Forbes is largely funding his candidacy, his Web campaign is directed toward building support and mobilizing volunteers.

"In the largest sense, the Internet is providing a medium for presidential campaigns to re-engage the individual volunteer, who we haven't seen for several election cycles," says Rick Segal, the Forbes campaign Webmaster. "Big media, and the big money it requires, are occupying a larger part of our politics. That has come at the expense of grass-roots participation."

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