BCRA, the Web and You

Posted July 30, 2003 at 6:11pm

Depending on how the Supreme Court rules on the McCain- Feingold campaign finance law, the Internet could turn into an even more important engine of political fundraising and advertising, experts say.

The Bipartisan Campaign Review Act, currently in force pending Supreme Court review this September, restricts soft-money advertising from being broadcast on television and radio 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election. If that provision is upheld, according to election law attorney Kenneth Gross, political advertisers may turn to the Web in order to “replace what people will be unable to do on TV.”

Carol Darr, director of the Institute of Politics, Democracy and the Internet at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, said McCain-Feingold has created

a “different set of loopholes.” By excluding the Internet from the broadcast restrictions, it “becomes all the more valuable, because that’s all there is,” she said.

But Web designers warn that you can’t merely duplicate broadcast media advertising online.

“The Internet is interactive,” Darr said, “but it’s just a monologue unless people are talking back to you.”

Larry Purpuro, managing director of RightClick Strategies and former director of the e.GOP project for the Republican National Committee, said political consultants are on “version 3.0 of Web campaigning.” A candidate’s Web site should be a portal for collecting donations, registering e-mail addresses, sending out e-mail missives — “truly the place where you launch all of your campaign” communications, he said, and not just an online brochure.

A former worker for Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2000 presidential campaign estimated that McCain2000.com “made up for the $80 million worth of advertising the [George W.] Bush campaign had” — something McCain’s underdog campaign lacked. The active Web presence offset, to some extent, the Bush campaign’s traditional paid media advertising, he said, though McCain had to relentlessly use low-cost or free conventional media outlets like press interviews and placement of signs with the Web site address on podiums.

“Where you don’t have a promotional budget, you need a candidate who is fully engaged, like P.T. Barnum, driving folks into the circus tent, in this case the Web site,” the former McCain worker said.

But with more and more Americans flocking automatically to their computers for political information — 46 million users, according to the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet — Web campaigners also are looking to promote Web pages through the Internet itself.

Chris Casey, a Democratic Web consultant, said campaigns are learning to apply advertising lessons gleaned from commercial Web promoters.

“It’s not so much breaking new-edge technology as it is a use of the technology,” he said.

Casey said Web users should expect to see political banner ads in the near future, for example. They have the advantage of targeting a specific demographic — often more specific than television or radio can be.

“If my campaign wants to speak to women NASCAR fans in the third district of Texas, I can go to Yahoo! or AOL to show ads that are only shown to that audience,” said Jonas Seiger, visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics, Democracy and the Internet.

Another tool campaigns can use is “search engine optimization,” according to another Web consultant. Three or four major search engines dominate the Web, ranking pages according to various criteria. Campaigns want to ensure that their candidate’s official page comes up first in that search list, and there are “a number of techniques that one can undertake to ensure that when your name is punched in that search engine or that issue is entered, that your Web site of choice is, if not the first ranked linked, then it’s in the top five,” according to the Web consultant.

All search engines offer “sponsored,” or paid, Web links, another option campaigns increasingly ignore at their own risk. It “just shows the lack of sophistication by [campaigns] paying $80,000 for a full-page ad in the daily newspaper, but they don’t pay $5,000 to take the preferred position in Google for a given 30-day or 60-day period,” the consultant said.

Search engine placement becomes more important as parody sites also become more common. Nevertheless, Web consultants say that preventive buying of potentially damaging URLs can be a waste of money. Casey said he advises his clients not to even bother. Let’s say you preventively register JoeSmithSucks.com, Casey said. The opposition “will just register JoeSmith ReallySucks.com.” There are so many potential negative variations that preventive registering will only create “very happy domain registers who will very happily pocket your money,” he said.

One Web consultant derided preventive URL registration as fighting the last war.

Despite all the potential pitfalls, Casey said candidates have two options regarding their Web operations.

“You can do it well or you can do it halfheartedly,” he said.