Online Campaigns Still an Art, Not a Science

The Internet is evolving from a novelty item to an integral campaign tool as many candidates at the state level try for the first time to tap the political power and wealth of the online world.

In 1998, Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura engineered his upset victory for governor of Minnesota largely by mobilizing supporters through e-mail and a Web site. Last year, the organizational and fund-raising success of former presidential candidate Howard Dean (D) raised the possibility that the information highway leads to a political gold mine.

But having a Web site, even a good one, is no silver bullet for state-level candidates, and there is no magic formula for fund raising on the Internet, political consultants and technology experts warn.

"Today, effective online campaigning is about political survival, not experimentation," writes Internet political analyst Steven Clift of Minneapolis on his E-Democracy Web site. "If your opponent gets it right, that might swing the 2 percent of the vote that you needed. And, at the local and state legislative level, where television isn't dominant, it might even be the 10 percent swing you needed."

All but a few of the candidates in the nation's 11 gubernatorial contests this year have campaign Web sites. There is no definitive number of state legislative candidates with campaign Web sites, but some estimate the number at one-third to one-half of incumbents plus most challengers.

The gubernatorial campaign sites range from bland to bold. Mike Protack (R), running for governor in Delaware, has an animated introduction superimposing his photo on the Stars and Stripes. But Protack's site pales compared to that of independent candidate Frank Infante of Delaware, featuring waving U.S. and Delaware flags, a spinning "'04" logo and psychedelic hot buttons linking to information on his site.

Missouri Gov. Bob Holden (D) allows site visitors to view his television ads online. Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt (R), also running for governor, has a video of his campaign announcement that Web visitors can download and watch.

Even with high-tech features, state-level candidates face bigger challenges campaigning on the Web than well-known and well-financed federal candidates. "Unless you have outsider fight-the-man' star power like Jesse Ventura ... nothing about your online strategy will be easy or a miracle," Clift writes.

Campaigns may try to cut costs by having volunteers with little design experience set up their Web sites, said Ben Thompson, co-founder of the Internet services company, Lux, in Seattle. But a site shouldn't look cheap, he said. A Web site needs just as much professional planning and thought as a campaign television ad or mailing.

"Graphic design is like a sense of humor: Everybody thinks they have one," Thompson said. A good campaign Web site has to have a professional look and a clear message, he said.

Thompson and his colleagues reviewed the Web sites of Washington candidates for the Puget Sound Business Journal and found most to be lacking. "We were surprised at how poor the sites were," Thompson said.

Thompson's group gave high marks to the site of Washington gubernatorial hopeful Ron Sims (D) for its Spanish-language links and a user-feedback form, but they panned the site of gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi (R) as "devoid of any community outreach or interactivity."

A Web site has become a symbol of the candidate's image, but it's not just about sophisticated design and technology, said political strategist Larry Purpura of Rightclick Strategies in Washington, D.C. Too many candidates confuse having a Web site with having an Internet strategy integrated with all the other campaign activities, he said.

The most important part of an Internet strategy is telling people about the site and getting them to visit it. A good example is the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who "was like P.T. Barnum barking out" his campaign's Web address at every event, Purpura said.

The Internet address of a campaign site has to be simple and easy to remember, writes online political expert Clift.

Once there, visitors need a regular reason to come back. Good political Web sites encourage visitors to sign up for e-mail updates to lure them back online, Clift told Stateline.org. And features that allow Web site visitors to add their own input such as an online Web log, or blog link users to the campaign and make them feel part of a community, he said.

Making individual Web visitors feel part of something bigger was a key to the Dean success, said his former campaign manager, Joe Trippi. "We realized right away that it's about building a community and empowering people," he said

While e-mail lists are an effective strategy to inform and activate supporters, political strategists still are unsure about the effectiveness of online fund raising.

In Indiana, for example, the state GOP is finding that online fund raising works best in tandem with phone calls, said state Rep. Luke Messer (R), who is also the state party's executive director.

Purpura points out that the Republican National Committee claims 10 times more Web subscribers than Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, but Kerry has garnered twice as much in campaign contributions online.

Jonathan Wilcox, who teaches communications at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, said that fund raising on the Web is here to stay despite the uneven successes of candidates. Online efforts reduce both the time and cost of traditional campaigning, he said. And over time donors are bound to feel more comfortable giving online, just as they have become used to paying bills and buying things via the Internet.