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The Power of the Internet

By Alexis Rice
Fellow at the Center for the Study of American Government at The Johns Hopkins University and creator of www.campaignsonline.org

November 2004

In this year's election, the Internet has proven to be a breakthrough tool in presidential campaigning. Americans have embraced the Internet to connect to the political process. Online campaigning has revolutionized political communication, grassroots activism, supporter outreach, and fundraising. Ten years ago, the Internet was barely used in politics; today it is an innovative, informative, interactive, and a creative tool that has changed campaigning. During the 2004 election cycle, more than 40% of Internet users accessed political material online, a 50% increase from the 2000 election.

Since the Internet's emergence in the 1996 presidential campaign, websites continue to get more sophisticated as technology advances. Campaign sites have evolved and are more than just an online brochure.

The election of Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota in 1998 was the first campaign to demonstrate the power of the Internet. Ventura, a third-party candidate with little party structure or endorsements, used the Internet to present his message. In the early stages of his campaign, Ventura had no physical headquarters-just an ever-growing e-mail list. Two-thirds of his fundraising pledges arrived via the Internet. The network generated a surge at the end, especially among young, new voters. Ventura won half of the under 30 vote in a three-way race.

In the 2000 Republican presidential primary, John McCain developed a grassroots Internet following and received a huge boost from Internet-based donations after winning the New Hampshire Republican primary. But when McCain's campaign fizzled, so did some expectations for the Internet in the Presidential race. During the 2000 Presidential election, George W. Bush and Al Gore both created websites, sent out e-mail updates, and accepted online donations, but they still ran their campaigns in a conventional manner with the added use of technology-but were not defined by it.

In 2003, Democratic Presidential hopeful Howard Dean transformed politics by utilizing the Internet as an integral part of his campaign. Dean was the first candidate to use blogging, Meetups, and other innovative technology tools as part of his campaign strategy, which created a loyal grassroots network and fundraising base. Dean raised more than $20 million online, showing the fundraising power of the Internet, reinventing campaign fundraising by shifting from a few big donors to countless small donors. These new and important Internet strategies were then adopted in the John Kerry and George W. Bush campaigns, along with political parities and candidates on the state and local level.

Seeing the success of Dean in online fundraising, the Kerry campaign used similar fundraising strategies and raked in nearly $82 million in online contributions. The Bush campaign mainly used their website to organize and communicate with supporters, and ultimately collected around $14 million online. With the success of Kerry's online fundraising efforts, Kerry was able to compete with Bush financially and level the playing field in terms of donations. While the Bush campaign raised a record-breaking $260 million, the Kerry campaign was not so far behind with $248 million thanks to the large number of Internet donations. Additionally, grassroots organizations capitalized on online fundraising, for example MoveOn.org raised nearly $44 million in 2004 mostly through online fundraising.

Another major advancement in campaign technology this year was blogging. Campaigns and the political parties created blogs, as did many individuals around the country, adding their viewpoints and opinions in cyberspace to reach a large audience. Campaigns used their blogs to present their unfiltered message and brought supporters together to form a new online community. Both the Democratic and Republican parties invited bloggers to cover their conventions this year.

Campaigns expanded their use of e-mail, creating massive e-mail lists of supporters to increase communication, effectively reaching out to voters and increasing fundraising. It is estimated that the Kerry campaign had about 2.6 million people on its e-mail list, while the Bush campaign that had been building their e-mail list for nearly six years had nearly 5 million people on their list.

Overall, in this election the Internet proved it's power; showing it is a place to organize, inform, and raise funds easily. The possibilities are endless with the Internet; therefore, future campaigns will need to expand and build on the strategies used in this election cycle in order to be competitive.

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