SAN FRANCISCO (01/28/2000) - The door bursts open to the one-man war room of the Web site headquarters for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. A towering figure appears.
"I want you to get Bill Powers' e-mail address," Roy Fletcher, McCain's campaign strategist, barks at Max Fose, the campaign's Net guru. Powers is the New York State Republican Party Chairman. New York is the only state in which McCain isn't yet on the primary ballot -- due largely to the efforts of the state Republican Party, which backs McCain rival George W. Bush. "I want you to e-mail it to everyone on our list," Fletcher snarls, punctuating each word by stabbing his forefinger in the air. "And I want you to tell them to e-mail Powers and tell those bastards to put us on the ballot."
Fletcher starts to leave -- but turns around one last time to drawl. "Let's see how Mr. Powers likes answering 20,000 e-mails."
Fose smiles, and chuckles come from a speakerphone. That's because Fose -- who started as an intern for McCain in 1992, and now manages the Arizona Senator's Internet campaign operations -- was in the middle of a conference call before Fletcher crashed into the room. Everyday Fose has a meeting over the phone with his boss, Wes Gullett, deputy campaign manager, and the campaign's Web consultants, Tom Yeatts and Laura Kittleman from the Maryland-based firm Virtual Sprockets. They plot the daily strategy of what to feature on the campaign's Web site -- Mccain2000.com -- what to send to the nearly 55,000 folks who signed up for McCain's e-mail list, and how to best use the Net to reach prospective primary voters, educate them and get them to the polls.
McCain and other candidates are finding the Net to be a valuable campaign tool.
Particularly with the underdog campaigns, the Web is used to keep costs down, disseminate the campaign message and enable voter participation in ways never before contemplated. In short, campaign managers say the Internet is beginning to live up to the predictions that it might become as influential a medium in politics as television became after the 1960 presidential race.
Only four years ago, candidates posted sites that resembled brochures. Today, the Web is incorporated on a daily basis into the larger campaign strategy at the headquarters of all the front-runners -- including Bill Bradley's campaign in West Orange, N.J.; Al Gore's offices in Nashville, Tenn.; Bush's operation in Austin, Texas; or Steve Forbes' base in Alexandria, Va. The Forbes camp last week credited its Internet operation with a better-than-expected second-place showing in the Iowa caucus. Forbes' Internet consultant, advertising executive Rick Segal, says the tactic that proved most effective was mobilizing some of the 84,000 people nationwide who have offered to volunteer to make personal calls to Iowans. "This is the first demonstrative example of the power of the Internet in politics," Segal says. "There's this old phrase called Weekend Warrior that refers to supporters who don't live in a state but are willing to do work on the weekend. What we've done is turn out 84,000 online volunteers into Cyber Weekend Warriors."
The lessons the campaigns are learning about the Web should prove valuable not only for campaigns to come, but also for Internet companies trying to design products for political activity and for offline organizations seeking to migrate online.
The campaigns are being bombarded with solicitations from companies selling everything from new ways of delivering video over the Internet to talking e-mail to membership marketing programs for their donors. (The last is a violation of election rules.) Most campaigns are sticking with tried-and-true technologies from vendors with whom they have established relationships. Millionaire businessman Steve Forbes, who has outspent rivals on his Web campaign, experimented successfully with an audio e-mail created with help from Radical Mail, of Marina Del Ray, Calif., and a video-clip designed by Ecommercial.com, of Mission Viejo, Calif. And staff indicated those have helped build his corps of online volunteers.
McCain's camp says it has been pitched by some of the same vendors but that it found the technology often didn't work. Gore has experimented with more video and audio messages than Bradley, but the former New Jersey senator has raised more in online contributions than any of his rivals. (By the end of 1999, Bradley raised $1.2 million via the Net, compared with $1 million for McCain, $910,000 for Gore and $180,000 for Bush, according to Politics Online.) Meanwhile, campaigns are devising new ways to use the Internet to keep costs low. Bradley used television and radio ads to drive Iowans to a special caucus site, Caucusforbradley.com, which provided step-by-step instructions through the caucus process and even click-on video demonstrations. Lynn Reed, Bradley's Internet consultant, says the campaign proved so popular they might try something similar in other states.
McCain's camp planned to use the network of volunteers it lined up via the Net to establish a nationwide phone bank to get New Hampshire voters to turn out for the Feb. 1 primary. McCain's staff found 1,500 people willing to make calls from their homes. A list of registered voters in New Hampshire was divided up into blocks of 10 and e-mailed to volunteers.
Some of the campaigns try to keep phone bills low by relying on America Online's Instant Messenger program to connect staff across the country. The Gore and Bush campaigns are also making rampant use of e-mail chains, which involve getting supporters to tell 10 friends, who then are expected to tell 10 more friends, and so on. As campaigns move more aggressively online, campaign strategists are learning that proper Internet etiquette is important. Several have been chastised by supporters about receiving too much e-mail after signing up for campaign alerts. The Bush campaign shows the most restraint, sending only one message per day, trying not to abuse the privilege of having volunteers' e-mail addresses, says Greg Sedberry, Bush's Internet operations director.
In contrast, Bradley's campaign sent out nine e-mail messages Dec. 13, about, among other topics, Ernestine Bradley visiting Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rep. George Miller endorsing the former senator, Bradley's speech urging campaign-finance reform, and an attack on Gore's alleged lack of interest in campaign-finance reform.
Back at McCain headquarters, the staff has used all sorts of tools to analyze visits to the campaign Web site. There were a record 10.2 million hits in December. The average visitor spends 22 minutes on the site; the most popular section is the one that focuses on issues. The staff alerts supporters when McCain will be in their area to ensure good turnout at events.
But the McCain campaign also says it needs more tools to help it better use the Internet. "This year the Internet will have a big impact," says Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager. "But in the next race, the Net will dominate the campaign."
Right now, the Internet is used for message delivery, but what campaigns need in the future is demographic information about Web audiences to help them pick and choose sites on which they want to advertise. Says Davis, "This is a learning process."
Back in the Web War Room, Fose returns to his task at hand. He has to draft a plea to send to the thousands who have signed up for the McCain e-mail newsletter asking them to use the Internet to help get McCain on the primary ballot in New York.
"The Bush campaign and the New York state GOP are trying to keep John McCain off the ballot in New York though tens of thousands of New York voters, state leaders -- including supporters of Texas Gov. George W. Bush -- and newspapers across the across the country say he should be on the ballot," the plea begins.
Fose asks supporters to e-mail New York Gov. George Pataki at firstname.lastname@example.org and Powers, for whom the closest thing to a personal e-mail address he can find is Republicans@nygop.org. Some politicians, it seems, are more wired than others.