New and improved

New and improved – The Online Campaigner

Michael Cornfield

Santa was exceptionally kind to online politicians last Christmas. Here’s what they found beneath the tree.

The BCRA Bequest: The Supreme Courtruling in McConnell upheld the ban on ads broadcast to an electorate within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days of a general election that mention a federal candidate and are paid for with soft money. But guess what? The ban does not apply to ads distributed through the Internet. The Internet helps campaigns raise hard money. These two facts of the post-BCRA world ought to add 10 miles an hour to a dot-pol consultant’s pitch to clients interested in having an impact on the 2004 elections.

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The MeetUp Challenge: MeetUp.com has grown fast since its June 2002 launch. The company received a jolt of positive publicity from its association with the Dean campaign, and it is verging on branding the concept of face-to-face meetings organized through the Internet.

This year, MeetUp has thrown down a virtual gauntlet to candidates for federal and statewide office; It will schedule monthly MeetUp days for every declared candidate for governor, Congress and Senate.

That means online citizens can sign up to meet others in their area interested in the topic of a candidate. Those who do so will be led through a process prompting them to suggest and vote on locales and agenda items for the next meeting, and then to evaluate how well the meetup went. Campaigns have other ways of gathering supporters, of course, both online and offline. But there is a risk in ignoring the MeetUp challenge. The company keeps public tabs on the number of people who sign up. Spurning a free offer to assemble potential volunteers could look bad, especially if others in the race accept the challenge and have more and more people coming each month. Dot-pols should prepare a Meetup strategy for their candidates.

The Dean Machine’s Flash Fund-raising Formula: To get the most money out its supporters through the Internet, the Dean campaign sets short-term goals in dollars and hours, and ties them to aspects of the race currently in the news. This technique can be readily adapted to campaigns at any level of office and publicity. We need $5K by Friday at noon to put this ad on the air to rebut the scurrilous charge made by our opponents, $10K to match the money the special interests will raise for the other side at next Wednesday’s closed-door fund-raiser, $20K to thank the president when he arrives to endorse our candidate at the end of the month, and so on.

The trick, of course, is to set an attainable goal. It won’t look good to outsiders or feel good to insiders to fall short of a publicized fund-raising target. But the beat-the-clock approach recreates the atmosphere of the Web’s best money machines. And the more goals a campaign sets, the better it will become at calibration.

Blogs: While the Dean campaign has been stupendous online, Howard Dean himself has not had much of a direct hand in that success. The first great Internet politician has yet to appear. That person will be a blogger who builds a personal following out of the people who click regularly to see what the blog has to say, show and link to. That person could be your candidate. Or (back to the Dean campaign), it could be you and perhaps another member of the campaign staff, blogging on the candidate’s behalf. It might even be you playing Cyrano for your candidate.

The CAN-SPAM Act: The new anti-spam law will be a gift to online campaigners only if they behave. The law soups up penalties for deceptive and fraudulent commercial bulk e-mail. But many people regard any unsolicited e-mail as spam, including those sent by political campaigners. To get Internet users and their Internet Service Providers to accept the distinction between spam and unsolicited political e-mail will take more than the reassertion of the latter’s Constitutional protection. Political e-mailers need to display an “unsubscribe” option prominently in their messages and honor all opt-out requests. Bad apples like the Minnesota Democratic Farm Labor Party and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, which have ignored four opt-out requests apiece from yours truly since the 2002 elections, spoil the Internet for everyone.

Each of these five wonderful presents requires client authorization and citizen participation to work. It’s up to dot-pols to procure both.

ADVICE BY MICHAEL CORNFIELD

Michael Cornfield teaches political strategy and directs research for the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. He may be reached at corn@gwu.edu.

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