How to market the candidate of the future

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Presidential hopefuls burnish online image.
Will the masses get the message?

Having an Internet presence will sway few votes for presidential candidates this year. But that doesn't mean interactivity isn't changing the way the campaigns are run.

One of Ross Perot's faithful went out and bought a computer at a wholesale club just so he could stay in touch with his leader online.

The Dole campaign has signed up some 1,000 volunteers through its World Wide Web site. Lamar Alexander chatted up would-be constituents on America Online the night before announcing his candidacy.

And the obligatory formal presidential debates may seem redundant next year to devotees of Prodigy's news bulletin board, where Republican candidates have been jousting electronically since November.


For the first time in election history, 1996's presidential race will be played out in and around the interactive world.

It won't matter that the actual audience using interactive media is small or that the vast majority of those casting their votes on Nov. 5 could care less about actually being online. But inasmuch as presidential marketing is all about appearances, smart candidates will be polishing their interactive image to a blinding glow.

"The candidates are going online largely to create an image of being in touch with the future," said Forrest Maltzman, a professor of political science at George Washington University. "They're not doing it just for the people who log on but for the publicity surrounding it."

No one expects interactivity to steal from traditional media advertising this time around.

"A candidate may choose the Internet rather than videocassettes, but not this vs. mass markets," said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications, Bethesda, Md.

Instead, the media impact will come from print and broadcast stories about candidates' Web sites.

"You know that before the election is over one of the networks will run a story on candidates' Web pages, and if you want to be prominently displayed in that story, you need a great page," said Mr. Maltzman.


"[Interactivity] will enhance our ability to communicate with people in the field--grassroots leaders--beyond anything currently available," said Ann Lewis, deputy campaign manager for President Clinton's re-election campaign.

After leading a recent workshop in Florida, Ms. Lewis said, "the first question was from an elderly gentleman, who said, `Terrific. Now, have you got all this up on the Internet so we can pull it down?' " Her answer? "Not yet, but we will have."

The Clinton campaign will be late to the party, however. It plans to have its Web site up and running early this year, but every other major candidate is already there.

"In terms of influencing people with advertising or materials on the Internet--you're really preaching to the choir there," said Gary Selnow, a professor at San Francisco State University and author of "High-Tech Campaigns." "It doesn't change people's minds or provide balance."


Campaigns are grappling for the first time with the regulations of online advertising.

Of concern: how a candidate accounts for expenditures to create and maintain a Web site. So far, the Federal Election Commission considers Internet expenditures a national expense, just like national TV advertising.

But those answers may be inadequate next time around, if fund-raising and advertising over the Internet explode, as many expect.

"Can advertisers set up hyperlinks to politicians?" asked Mr. Arlen. "And if they do, is that hyperlink a campaign contribution?" And if it is, one might ask, how do you place a value on it?

As one campaign official pointed out, "A lot of this is still up in the air"--and likely will be decided on a case-by-case basis.


By the 2000 election, two key things are likely to have changed: Online demographics will be more representative, making the environment more reliable for polling and advertising. Technology advances also will make Web sites attractive not only to the committed but to the undecided.

"Right now there's not much accidental exposure to the candidates' messages online, like there is in television advertising," said Steven Bates, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program, a think tank dedicated to communications policies.

And by the next election, the Internet may be ready to fulfill its potential as a truly interactive medium, mimicking the role of talk radio in the 1992 campaign as a way for candidates to get out an unfiltered message--and get voters' frank responses flung back at them.

"The Internet is moving in the direction of talk radio," said Andrew Weinstein, Internet representative for the presidential campaign of Bob Dole (R., Kan.).

Also down the line: electronic balloting. Although no campaign staffer interviewed for this article mentioned that possibility, there's obvious interest in updating the U.S.' antiquated election system.

"In the long term, the cue won't be `I'm the candidate of the future,' but `I'm the candidate of substance,' " said Matt Dorsey, a Democratic political consultant and creator of the irreverent NewtWatch Web site--targeting, we might add, famous non-candidate Newt Gingrich.

"I think you'll see candidates make increasingly frequent references to their Web sites in sound bites: `Here's my canned response: Please see my Web page for my 12-point plan.' "

Copyright January 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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