Assuming that President George W. Bush signs the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001 into law, political candidates may urgently need to reassess the way they use the Internet. An informal survey conducted by The Bivings Group uncovered a major gap in Internet participation by candidates as less than 25% of incumbent Senators and Representatives had launched a campaign website for the 2002 mid-term elections. Hopefully, campaign finance reform may provide the impetus that will transform the intersection of politics and the Internet.

The Internet waits for no one

According to a Department of Commerce study released in February of this year, over 50% of U.S. households have access to the Internet. The study also reports that over 20% of all Internet users have made purchases online in 2001, up from 13% in 2000. By inference, we can estimate that over 20 million Americans feel comfortable using the Internet to transfer money, clearing the way for campaign sites to use the Web as a primary conduit for donations.

Previous efforts have met with some success, though they tend to represent the insurgencies in the political world that can motivate a core element around a theme in many states. In the case of Senator McCain’s 2000 primary race, his campaign raised $1 million online in just 48 hours during the New Hampshire primary. The entire online campaign raised over $5 million. Furthermore, the McCain campaign transformed the windfall from New Hampshire into cash-on-hand immediately, including federal matching funds. As successful as McCain’s Internet campaign was, it is just the tip of the iceberg with what is possible and now, thanks to campaign finance reform, seemingly inevitable.

Show me the hard money!

The main goals of the campaign finance reform measure that has passed in the House is to eliminate unregulated “soft” money. At the same time, regulated “hard” money limits for individuals have been raised from $1,000 to $2,000. With soft money disappearing after the 2002 elections, candidates that are not specifically targeted for extra financial support by their state and national parties will find themselves in a new campaign paradigm. The opportunity cost of spending hard money during primary season is much greater now that candidates will not be able to rely on soft money during the actual election.

The question that remains is what exactly a well-planned, Internet-enabled campaign actually means in the real world. The website should accomplish three goals:

  • Disseminate information
  • Organize volunteers
  • Accept donations

Each of these goals can be accomplished with an array of Internet tools, tailored to the audience that the candidate is trying to reach, scaleable to available funds and ultimately able to maintain itself through a fraction of the donations it receives. Obviously, good people (and a good candidate?) behind the campaign are pre-requisites, but with the rate of technological change on the web, a savvy staff or Internet consultant is now a must.Beyond a website

The first, most easily remedied, pitfall in turning a campaign onto the opportunities of using the Internet in a campaign is to stop assuming that the Internet is something that “those consultants/interns/people in the basement” do. If you make a substantial financial investment in making the Internet part of your campaign strategy, it needs to be reinforced with a commensurate management responsibility that assures the campaign will promote the website at every possible mediatic turn.

Websites derive an exponential value from a linear volume of visitors that interact with the site. In other words, be absolutely sure that people know where to go and can add value to your campaign.

Campaign finance reform does not become law until November 6, the day after the November midterm elections. But given the underlying economic upheaval that it will create, it is now time to consider the ramifications and grasp the opportunities that can transform campaigns into more engaging, personal and interactive ventures.