As 2000 Campaign Wanes, Viral E-Mail's the Big Winner

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In the waning days of campaign 2000, supporters of political candidates and organizations have flooded e-mail boxes with variations of the basic viral message: "Remember to vote -- e-mail this message to a friend."


Political parties, special-interest groups, trade associations, business groups and unions have contributed to the blitz of viral marketing as part of their last-minute get-out-the-vote activities. From the Christian Coalition to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, organizations have been arming supporters with information about candidates and issues -- and imploring them with a standard "spread the word" pitch.


Political operatives say viral marketing is an immensely helpful tool for get-out-the-vote efforts.


"The number of people now reached [through the Internet] dwarfs our other media," said Brian Wild, executive director of grass-roots and advocacy programs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Washington, a group that is backing pro-business candidates.


With traditional get-out-the-vote methods such as telemarketing, direct mail or door-to-door leafleting, voters may read or hear the message, but the likelihood that they will take action or pass it on to a friend is slim, Wild said.


But the Internet, with its point-and-click convenience, changes that. An activist appeal to the chamber's 20,000-supporter e-mail list resulted in a response rate of more than 50 percent. Wild estimated that this activist appeal reached more than 100,000 potential voters.


While acknowledging the difficulty of estimating the actual reach of a viral campaign, Wild said that because of viral forwarding, the chamber's campaign messages could contact 3 million to 5 million voters before Election Day.


Other groups, enthused by the potential magnitude of the viral effect, have created programs to spur person-to-person networking. The Republican National Committee, for example, has the so-called eChampion program, and similarly, the Democratic National Committee has the e-Precinct Leader program. Both programs ask activists to commit themselves to viral messaging. During the past two weeks, the two campaigns have contacted e-activists almost daily.


Organizations such as the AFL-CIO and NARAL have fueled the online get-out-the-vote rush by adding a "send an e-card" feature to their Web sites. The e-card feature, increasingly common on candidate Web sites, urges activists to e-mail a political advertisement, along with a personal note, to a list of friends, family members and colleagues. Recipients of the e-card can view it at the organization's Web site, where they, in turn, are urged to remind more friends to vote.


While most organizations are still investing primarily in the tried-and-true get-out-the-vote methods, some groups have already made the Internet a central part of their strategies.


The U.S. Chamber of Commerce will spend several hundred thousand dollars on Internet activities this campaign season. It launched its online campaign in January with its Grassroots Action Information Network, a site designed to provide members with political information. The chamber intensified its online effort in August with a banner advertising campaign, which added 20,000 activists to the organization's e-mail list. A second Web site was created to serve these newly recruited activists and provide them with organizing tools.


In addition to the viral effect, an added advantage of Internet-style get-out-the-vote efforts is the ability to target precisely and quickly.


"We knew we didn't have the resources to make an impact in every race," Wild said. So in August, the chamber targeted its advertising campaign on Internet service provider Juno to pro-business voters in 25 geographical areas.


Likewise, other organizations have used the Internet for last-minute targeting. Abortion rights advocate NARAL reportedly sent e-mail messages to 200,000 likely pro-choice voters in recent weeks.


And late last month, the Sierra Club, in a move to recruit activists in swing districts, sent e-mail messages to 10,000 independent-registered women age 25 to 55 in Pennsylvania and Ohio. According to Deanna White, the organization's deputy political director, the Sierra Club paid voter database company Aristotle International $5,000 for the names. The organization has spent roughly $30,000 on Internet advertising during this campaign, White said.


With recent polls projecting extremely close races across the country, some say online get-out-the-vote efforts could play a decisive role in swing districts.


Wild believes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's focused online efforts could tip the scales in tight races in Kentucky and Michigan.


Pam Fielding, a principal at E-advocates, Washington, a consultancy that specializes in recruiting "cyberadvocates" for associations and nonprofit organizations, also believes that online get-out-the-vote efforts could play an important role in the election.


Fielding predicts that organizations that have been regularly updating supporters about legislative battles in Congress will reap dividends on Nov. 7. Educating voters will pay off, Fielding said. "I think voters will connect the dots between what has happened in legislation and the importance of election 2000," she said.
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