Web Political Campaigns Begin Earlier Than Ever

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Campaign 2002 -- that's right, 2002 -- is already under way on the Internet.

Andrew Cuomo, former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary and a Democratic candidate for governor of New York, started soliciting contributors and recruiting volunteers on his campaign Web site early this month. Cuomo is believed to be the first candidate for office in 2002 with a Web site.

But analysts say www.andrewcuomo.com is just the beginning.

Both GOP and Democratic political consultants say many to-be-announced candidates for statewide offices in 2002 have Web sites in production. They are set to launch these sites during the next few months.

"The Web clearly has become the first step for a campaign," said Max Fose, an Internet political consultant and partner at Integrated Web Strategy, Washington.

Most candidates for elected office in 2002 will not have a significant bricks-and-mortar campaign operation until next year. But analysts say these campaigns are rushing to develop their Web sites nearly two years before the election for several key reasons.

Yet-to-be-announced candidates would like to have a site ready to go when they announce their candidacies, according to Andy Hoefer, political consultant and content manager at PoliticsOnline, Charleston, SC.

Web-equipped campaigns can capitalize on the enthusiasm generated by the candidate's announcement simply by steering interested people or reporters to their Web sites.

Also, upstart campaigns often begin with a limited budget. But for $10,000, a candidate can launch a professionally designed, interactive Web site. So even if the candidate is unable to afford a bricks-and-mortar operation, they can start by establishing a sophisticated virtual campaign office, Fose said.

Launching a Web site early in the campaign could give candidates an advantage over their opponents in terms of building a grass-roots network of supporters and donors. In fact, "the earlier the better," advises Anil Mammen, president of Mammen, Pritchard & Associates, Washington, which specializes in voter contact. Candidates who have an interactive Web site clearly have a head start in recruiting campaign volunteers as well as in attracting and cultivating contributors, Mammen believes.

Though 2001 is what political consultants call an off-year -- a year in which there are no congressional elections and the presidency is not up for grabs -- business continues to grow.

Becki Donatelli, chairman of Hockaday Donatelli, Alexandria, VA, a political marketing consultantcy, said her firm has already signed 10 candidate clients.

Hoefer said sales of his firm's online fundraising software have continued to rise. And Pam Fielding, president of e-advocates, Washington -- a firm that specializes in managing issue-advocacy campaigns for nonprofit organizations -- said her firm expects to double its revenue this year.

"There is no such thing as an off-season anymore," she said.

Fielding said her increasingly Web-savvy, nonprofit clients are demanding more from their Web sites.

"They want a full-time political machine," she said. "[As a result] they're budgeting more and more for online political activities."

The growing popularity of the Web as a campaign tool is a direct response to the online success stories of 2000. Political operatives are well aware of the fundraising success of John McCain's Web site last year, said Fose, who managed McCain's site. The site raised more than $800,000 during the 48 hours following the New Hampshire primary.

"After seeing McCain's success, they're saying, 'We need to do this, too,'" Fose said.

As a result of the Web success of 2000, consultants say their sales job is getting much easier.

"In 1998, I was begging candidates to get online," Donatelli said.

In 2000, most candidates knew they had to have a site.

Donatelli said would-be candidates are taking the initiative by seeking out Internet consultants. Internet consulting has become the fastest-growing part of Donatelli's political consultancy, which also specializes in direct mail and telemarketing.

"Our [Internet] work is finally viewed as a serious part of the campaign," Donatelli said. "Candidates now understand that the Internet is every bit as important as direct mail or telemarketing."

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