Washington’s new strategists spin the Web
June 10, 1998 - Web posted at 4:15 PM EDT
by Elizabeth Wasserman
(IDG) -- The last time U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski ran for office, the Internet was a nonissue. Practically the only people using it back in 1992 were scientists, academics and programmers. Mikulski's campaign team bought ads on TV, radio and in print, and mass-mailed millions of brochures to voters. She handily won 71 percent of the vote.
But for her 1998 re-election bid, the Maryland Democrat had to have a cyber strategy. So she hired Lynn Reed to figure it out.
Reed, founder of the NetPolitics Group in Washington, D.C., is one of a small but growing number of political strategists focused exclusively on developing campaign strategies using the Web. These consultants can teach a candidate the dos and don'ts of netiquette, help a group mobilize online and simplify a write-in campaign by creating an e-mail form letter that cuts down on the cost and time it takes to write on paper.
For Mikulski, Reed took an inventory of the senator's voting record and accomplishments and designed an online database searchable by county. Because the campaign needed volunteers, Reed designed a Web-based sign-up form. Because the campaign wanted supporters to write in, Reed created a page for posting testimonials.
"In '96, the Net was essential at the national level," notes Reed, who managed the launch of the Clinton/Gore '96 campaign Web site, now on display at the Smithsonian. "In '98, it is essential if you're running at the state level and in certain congressional districts. But by 2000, we're going to see it used in every congressional and state senate race."
Internet political consultants are part of history in the making. The Nixon-Kennedy presidential race taught that whoever best used the medium – in that case, television – could win the electorate. Now, the race is on to embrace the Net, which could be the best way yet to get out the message, positive or negative.
Strategists are preparing for the Net equivalent of the campaign-winning ad. Think of the Bush campaign's use of Willie Horton in a television ad that aimed to make Michael Dukakis seem soft on crime. Or Lyndon Johnson's "daisy" spot against Barry Goldwater, featuring a young girl picking flowers just before a nuclear explosion.
Jonah Seiger and Shabbir Safdar, founders of Mindshare Internet Campaigns in Washington, D.C., want to produce the "Harry and Louise" political advertisement of our time. In the same way that the television spot featuring two "average Americans" helped turn public opinion against national healthcare reform, these two activists want to use the Net to help associations, coalitions and nonprofit groups advance their public policy goals.
"Look at the tobacco-free kids, Microsoft and its opponents, and what most of the trade associations and lobbying groups are doing," says Michael Cornfield, a political management professor at George Washington University. "They're making heavy use of the Internet to mobilize their members and supporters to contact members of Congress at exactly the right time."
When the pro-encryption group Americans for Computer Privacy approached Mindshare for help, the two executives drew on past successes. Seiger, a founder of the Center for Democracy and Technology, developed the political strategy. Safdar, a founder of Voters Telecommunications Watch and a programmer by training, developed the technology. The ACP Web site includes links to cybercasts of hearings, an encryption tutorial and a sign-up function by zip code that will help the group get supporters to write to their elected representatives.
"You need people who understand technology as well as how campaigns are run," says Mike Connell of New Media Communications in Cleveland, which designed www.jeb.org for Florida gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush (son of former President George Bush). "You need someone familiar with politics and the rapid response. If you have a news conference at 9 a.m., you need to post it on the Web by 10. That's why there is the emergence of this special type of consultant."
You can count the number of new-media strategists on your fingers, but even the more established political-strategy firms are diving in. Hill and Knowlton, which represented Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War, regularly chases down Net rumors on behalf of political clients. Fleishman-Hillard has a separate design and new-media division in St. Louis to help develop Web campaigns.
Where new-media strategists can help is in keeping campaigns from backfiring. Some candidates have learned the hard way that there are right and wrong ways to use the Net. Sending out unsolicited political advertisements via e-mail, for example, has proven troublesome, and a handful of candidates have found themselves under attack for "spamming."
One such accidental spammer, Oregon state representative candidate Jason Dimen, wrote: "As an environmentalist and campaign finance reformer, I practice what I preach – e-mail is simply cleaner and cheaper." Net users as far away as Boston received this mass e-mailing, far beyond Dimen's jurisdiction.
In California, a slate of Democrats – including gubernatorial candidate Jane Harman – came under fire for hiring San Francisco-based Informed Voter Network to send out mass e-mail. Political groups may be newcomers, it's true; but sometimes the problem lies with outside consultants.
"This is the wrong way to use the Net," says Mindshare's Seiger. "It undermines the potential. Citizens will be frustrated."
Robert Barnes, president of Informed Voter Network, heard the cries of the anti-spam contingent and, on the eve of the June 2 primary, he scrapped the plan to e-mail voters. But he maintains that it's naive to believe that this type of mass e-mailing won't catch on. "The right of political free speech is paramount. It's what this democracy is based on," he says.
For now, the Internet is showing some promise as a campaign tool for the Mikulski camp. Campaign sources report that in the first three weeks the Web site was live, it received 727 page views from 169 unique visitors. Those numbers are low by Web standards (Yahoo had 32 million unique visitors in April alone), but the Mikulski crew measures success in other ways.
Because the Internet strategy was intended to inspire interaction and lure volunteers, it may be better to consider what site visitors did once they got there. According to Mikulski's staff, 32 percent of visitors went to the "Get Involved" section; nearly half of those indicated electronically that they wanted to volunteer. It's exactly the sort of interaction Mikulski's staff was looking for.
The Net is "a wonderful mechanism to allow voters to look for what they want to know, issues they care about," says Ann R. Beser, Mikulski's campaign manager. "I wouldn't run a campaign without it."
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