Third Parties Tap the NetAs Election Day approaches, the Internet is playing an increasingly crucial role in the campaigns of lesser-known presidential candidates.
Lacking the financial resources to compete with the massive television ad blitzes and direct mail campaigns of the Democratic and Republican campaigns, third-party candidates have turned to cost-effective Internet marketing strategies to recruit volunteers, raise money and court undecided voters.
To date, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader has recruited more than 35,000 volunteers online and has compiled an e-mail list of nearly 100,000 subscribers. The Libertarian Party has raised nearly $200,000 through e-mail solicitations and plans to test a $20,000 banner-advertising campaign this week.
These candidates, as well as the Reform Party's Patrick J. Buchanan and the Natural Law Party's candidate, John Hagelin, are accepting credit card contributions online.
Phil Noble, president of PoliticsOnline, Charleston, SC, an analyst of Internet political strategies, views the adoption of Net politicking techniques by third-party candidates as an obvious move. "The Internet is custom-made for third parties," Noble said. "It gives everyone the same set of tools."
Indeed, minor parties, which lack the vast, labor-intensive precinct operations of the Democrats and Republicans, are now able to quickly mobilize supporters from across the country -- just like the major parties.
After the Commission on Presidential Debates limited the debates to Al Gore vs. George W. Bush, four of the excluded candidates conducted Internet-based petition campaigns. Nader's "Get Ralph in the Debates" campaign led the pack, collecting 65,000 signatures.
Even more significantly, Nader campaign spokesman Tom Adkins credited the campaign's Web site and e-mail list with driving a petition-signing campaign, which has helped Nader get on the ballot in more than 40 states, a Green Party record.
Each of the minor parties uses the Internet to mobilize volunteers for campaign activities -- such as calling radio shows, writing letters to newspaper editors and participating in protests. When Libertarian candidate Harry Browne was excluded from a recent interview with Nader and Buchanan on NBC's "Meet the Press," the party immediately tapped its Internet audience for a show of protest. Libertarian callers tied up the show's phone lines for more than a week.
The growth of the Internet has also been a boon to the member acquisition efforts of third-party candidates. By nature, third-party campaigns have a smaller, more diffuse base of support than the major parties, making targeting prospective supporters more challenging. Moreover, third parties receive much less media coverage than the major candidates. As a result, Noble said, one of the traditional barriers for third parties has always been that they could not find supporters, and supporters could not find them.
But with new Web sites, search engines, and the emergence of nonpartisan voter-information sites -- such as Vote.com, Webwhiteblue.org and FreedomChannel.com -- information and access to third-party candidates are more readily available than ever before.
Steve Dasbach, national director of the Libertarian Party, estimated that roughly 80 percent of the party's new inquiries come from the Internet. In 1996, the party's toll-free number was still the leading source of inquiries. Dasbach expects that the more costly and labor-intensive 1-800 number will eventually be phased out.
The Libertarian Web sites, which cost the party about $10,000 per month, are a much more effective and efficient way of acquiring new members, Dasbach said. Voters shopping for candidates or ideologies can now dig through extensive information on Libertarian positions, make a decision and join on the spot.
Third-party campaigns also say they are increasingly soliciting their e-mail lists.
Supporters who join the Libertarian e-mail list, which now numbers more than 20,000, receive "soft" solicitations through daily e-mail updates and special appeals. The Libertarians have earned nearly $200,000 through e-mail solicitation, and they expect this figure to grow as pre-Election Day efforts intensify.
Nader's campaign has raised more than $75,000 via e-mail and is currently using e-mail to help sell $20 tickets to the candidate's seven-city Super Rally fundraising tour.
Both the Libertarian Party and the Nader campaign say the Internet is still a much smaller revenue source than direct mail.
But Perry Willis, Browne's campaign manager, expects this to change rapidly as Internet marketing becomes a bigger part of the Libertarian strategy.
"I wouldn't be surprised if more than half of our fundraising revenue comes over the Internet in the 2004 campaign," he said.
Willis, who has worked on Libertarian presidential campaigns since 1984, also credited the Internet with boosting the size of contributions from Libertarian donors. The average gift of small Libertarian donors has increased steadily throughout the Internet age. "We're giving supporters more information and a real-time campaign experience," he said. "They now hear the candidate and really know how their money is being used."