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McCain campaign's legacy: Internet outreach

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
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By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2000


WASHINGTON -- Even though John McCain lost his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, he will be remembered for his innovative use of the Internet as a campaign tool.

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Campaign experts say McCain used the Internet more effectively than any previous national candidate. He not only had a good Web site, as do most politicians these days, his site was the driving force behind many important campaign activities -- volunteer recruitment, fundraising, communicating with the press, organizing events and so on.

McCain proved the Internet can increase the efficiency of a national campaign and, more importantly, he showed the Internet can help broaden a candidate's appeal. In fact, some experts say it was his use of the Internet as much as the freshness of his message that enabled McCain to lure independents to his cause.

"Political independents are more likely to use the Internet," says Pam Fielding, a political consultant who specializes in Web campaigns. "In the past, it has been hard to reach independents through traditional means."

This is an important lesson for Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush as the two likely nominees struggle to appeal to the same independent voters that were attracted to McCain.

To understand the value Web sites have in voter recruitment, call up the front-runners' sites, www.algore2000.com and www.georgewbush.com, if you haven't already. You also might want to check out www.mccain2000.com and www.billbradley.com for comparison. A pop-up box greets you with an opportunity to contribute to the campaign. McCain raised several million dollars over the past month with this little pop-up box. Because the Internet deals in credit cards -- not cash or checks -- money was instantly available to McCain. It would have taken him weeks to collect that much money through the mail -- and then he would have been forced to hire people to open the envelopes.

Craig Smith, who worked in the insurgent campaign of Democrat Gary Hart in 1984, says Hart might have been able to wrest the nomination away from Walter F. Mondale after winning the New Hampshire primary that year if he had received his contributions on the Internet, not in a mountain of envelopes.

The Web sites also offer voters an opportunity to study the candidates' records -- not through a 30-second TV or radio sound bite, but through multiple pages of text detailing their positions on every conceivable issue. You can even e-mail candidates for more information.

These Web sites also make it easy for citizens who want to volunteer their time to a campaign. Or watch the candidate's latest television spot. Or download campaign brochures to share with friends. Or even transfer a candidate banner advertisement to their Web site or the Web site of an organization that supports the candidate.

In Arizona last week, Democrats were able to cast their primary election vote via the Internet. This is an experiment that both parties watched closely, figuring it may be a way to increase future turnout.

"I think the marriage of the Internet and politics will be successful if voter turnout goes up," says Smith, echoing the sentiment of many Democrats and Republicans.

The Republican and Democratic parties also are expanding their Web-based communications with candidates, party regulars and potential contributors. Larry Purpuro, deputy chief of staff at the Republican National Committee, says his organization only recently bought the rights to the Web names gop.net and gop.com. A newly designed RNC Web site will be unveiled soon.

"We don't know what we're doing yet," conceded Purpuro, whose Web staff has increased from one to 15 in the past 10 months. " ... We are at the building-blocks level."

Of course, the Web can make for mischief. Political professionals already have discovered that e-mail is a good vehicle for negative campaigning because, as some have said, "it flies under the radar of the news media."

The RNC recently mounted a guerrilla attack through e-mail on the major network anchors: Dan Rather of CBS, Peter Jennings of ABC and Tom Brokaw of NBC. About 25,000 Republicans were encouraged to send e-mails to these three men, protesting the networks' allegedly scant coverage of the conviction of Maria Hsia, who collected illegal campaign donations from foreign contributors for the 1996 Democratic ticket.

"We shut down two of the three anchors' e-mails," Purpuro boasted.

Another drawback to politics on the Internet is that many of the nation's poorest people do not have access to computers. These people are already disenfranchised in so many ways, it would be especially cruel for them to be cut out of this opportunity. Yet if some of the problems can be overcome, there is little doubt the Internet could help restore trust in politics and politicians. According to a recent survey cited by Fielding, 64 percent of voters say they trust information about candidates that they receive via the Internet.

By comparison, only 6 percent of those surveyed said they trusted information about candidates offered to them in TV ads.

Sara Fritz can be reached by telephone at (202) 463-0576, or you can e-mail her at fritz@sptimes.com.

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