Political campaigns pivot on Web

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The web is now playing an integral role in political marketing. Tony Paquin, CEO of Netivation.com, a company that offers turnkey interactive political services, should know. He ran in 1997 and '98, unsuccessfully, in Idaho as a Republican for the U.S. House of Representatives. The experience gave him insight into what a politician needs to be successful.

"Running a political campaign is simply like running a small marketing company," Mr. Paquin asserted. "The challenge of getting the message out translates into raising money. For the year 2000 forward, the Internet will be a core part of political strategy."

And while there's no tally of businesses specializing in online politics, Campaigns & Elections lists about 30 companies. Mr. Paquin estimated the political Web-site community, involving such elements as election campaigns, lobbying and public policy communications, is a $2.5 billion a year industry.


Mellman Group, a Washington public opinion researcher, reported in September, "the number of Americans with Internet access who report giving time or money to social causes represents 25% of the adult population, or approximately 50 million people." Meanwhile, even as some critics fret over politicians' embrace of the Net, digital-age political advisers are gaining prominence.

Of all the political Web consultancies, Netivation's Votenet.com may have the highest profile. Based in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, it offers services such as free campaign software, Web sites and e-mail to politicians through Votenet. Netivation went public in June, for a value of about $22 million. The initial public stock offering allowed Netivation to begin buying other politically oriented sites with a combination of cash and stock.

It recently acquired -- for $350,000 and shares of stock -- three Washington-area companies: African-American Web site Politicallyblack.com; Public Disclosures, which provides Federal Election Commission data; and Raintree Communications, a grass-roots lobbying concern. Netivation also signed a letter of intent to buy Net.Capitol a public affairs technology company.


Founded in 1993 as an Internet service provider, Netivation has annual revenue of less than $1 million. In the most recent quarter ended Sept. 30, it revenue was nine times that of the previous quarter. Netivation has yet to turn a profit: Its loss for the first three quarters of '99 totaled $5.3 million.

On a brighter note, in Virginia's elections in November, Votenet hosted sites for every candidate in both major parties.

"The Web is revolutionizing the whole political process," Mr. Paquin said. "With it, you get a freer flow of information, which is huge. You also get an economic leveling; that is, a local candidate can now get his message out to an unlimited number of people. Before the Net, that was impossible."

Meanwhile, other Net political consultancies are playing a significant role on candidates' election teams.

One of these is San Francisco-based Aristotle Publishing, whose main site URL -- www.campaigncontribution.com -- spells out its intentions.

"At the end of the day," said CEO John Phillips, "voters will speak out with a conscience and a credit card. We bring political influence to the Net."

Mr. Phillips said the next election cycle will demonstrate the muscle behind online fund-raising. As recently as 1998, he claims, $125,000 was raised online for all federal elections; next year, the figure could reach $20 million. Among other services, Aristotle also lets its clients tap into a mailing list of 142 million U.S. voters. It counts seven former and current presidential candidates as clients.


This week Aristotle is breaking its first TV campaign, created by Big Mouth Advertising, San Francisco. The spots, which will air on CNN in Washington, are aimed at campaign managers.

But a selling point for Aristotle, Mr. Phillips noted, is how vigilant it is about playing by campaign rules. The Federal Election Commission has established electronic fund-raising guidelines, but Mr. Phillips calls them "a moving target." So Aristotle has a lawyer to keep up with FEC rule-making, which is in a constant state of flux.

"That's why federal campaigns pass by our competitors and sign with Aristotle," Mr. Phillips said.

Not all political consultancies focus on Web-site building. Some, such as Washington-based mindshare Internet Campaigns (www.

mindshare.net), advise clients on cyber-advertising buys. "Online advertising is a very powerful option for a campaign," said mindshare principal and co-founder Jonah Seiger. "Nothing is better for getting your message across in a low-cost manner to discrete audiences."


That said, he noted, if you're a candidate for high-level office, don't ignore print and TV advertising.

"The best way to promote your Web site is still with a television commercial," Mr. Seiger said.

David Dixon, for one, finds advertising Web sites through TV ironic. "The Net is overrated for using advertising to proactively get out your message," said Mr. Dixon, president of Dixon Media Group, another Washington-based consultancy. Though he believes that informational sites can play a critical role in elections -- mainly as repositories of information on candidates -- he advises his clients to shy away from purchasing banner ads on the Net.


At least one college professor is leery of the online commingling of politics and commerce.

"Political advertising in and of itself is kind of an oxymoron," said Benjamin Barber, director of Rutgers University's Walt Whitman Center. "Politics should be about debate and discussion, not about trying to push your views, as if the candidate is a package or a commodity."

Mr. Barber praises online fund-raising as a way for people to participate directly in a campaign. But he sees danger ahead as the Net becomes more commercialized.

Not everyone agrees with that critique.

"Saying that because there is commercial content on the Internet means there's less visibility for beneficial civic content is simply not accurate," Mr. Seiger said. "You can have political discourse right alongside commercial discourse. In fact, commerce will bring people to this medium. And that's good for all of its other aspects."

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