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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 July, 2004, 08:26 GMT 09:26 UK
US web campaigning pays off
By Ian Hardy
BBC ClickOnline North America technology correspondent

The internet has emerged as a powerful tool to raise funds in the US presidential campaign of 2004.

President Bush campaigning
The Bush camp has raised more than $200m
The amount of cash needed to compete for the top job in the White House is staggering.

By mid-June this year President George Bush had raised about $216m (123m), and his opponent John Kerry had brought in about $145m (82m).

Without money, and lots of it, the candidates cannot keep up with countless bus tours, campaign speeches, bumper sticker promotions and TV advertisements.

Experts watching the race say it is one of the most interesting elections in modern history for one reason - the internet.

Dean dream

After years of dabbling, political candidates have seemingly found a way to make the world wide web work for them.

"The internet has turned out, for the Democrats, to be a gold mine for campaign financing," said Michael Waldman, who was director of speechwriting for President Clinton between 1995 and 1999.

"Nobody was sure that was going to happen, but it's a lot better than relying on big, soft money contributions from corporations and unions."

Howard Dean campaigning
Dean used the internet to galvanise support
Howard Dean's team is generally credited with taking the internet to a new level within politics.

Dr Dean inspired a huge grass roots network online and then turned the database into a dollar donating machine.

In 2003 his staff had noticed that many of America's leading non-profit organisations had begun reporting significant increases in the amounts and frequency of online donations.

Many of those organisations had redesigned their websites with the aid of a new set of sophisticated web tools, built by Convio, which focused on viral marketing and more personalised interactions.

So Convio was hired to mastermind Dr Dean's online campaign and bring a fresh face to political fund raising.

"Instead of setting one big, lofty campaign goal, the thing that the campaign did most effectively was set very short-term, interim goals, tied to political or calendar events," said Vinay Bhagat, Chief Executive Officer of Convio.

"For example, if the Bush-Cheney campaign organised a dinner one weekend and raised $250,000, they would launch a micro-campaign saying 'we'd like to beat $250,000'.

"And lo and behold they would beat that target, and smash it in many cases, within 24 to 48 hours.

"That was really the inception of the 'Dean Bats', the idea of smashing the campaign goals of the Bush campaign," he explained.

Money trail

Howard Dean started breaking records. In June 2003 he raised nearly $820,000 in one day. And in February 2004, after a do or die e-mail appeal, cash flooded into his virtual wallet once again - a total of $475,000 in one day.

Vinay Bhagat, CEO of Convio
We're seeing, at a macro level, significant trends in terms of internet adoption and usage, the ability to reach people through e-mail, and the proportion of funds that are being raised online
Vinay Bhagat, Convio
Ben Green, an internet consultant with Crossroads Strategies who has worked on many political campaigns, including JohnKerry.com, said that this election was a watershed moment for the web and politics.

"Campaigns are now able to execute internet advertising where the amount of revenue generated is greater than the cost of running the advertising," he said.

"That wasn't really the case in 2000, it certainly wasn't the case in 1998 or 1996."

No doubt increased broadband penetration and greater trust of online transactions have helped.

But all the experts agree that a brilliantly executed web strategy is no guarantee of an election victory.

In a multi-media society, a single moment of TV still has the upper hand, as Howard Dean found out to his cost when an unguarded scream marked the beginning of the end of his campaign.

But many politicians at all levels watched Dr Dean's early success with intense interest, looking closely at features such as blogging, which allowed him to instantly see how his supporters felt about his campaign strategies and suggest several of their own.

Here to stay

One Democrat hoping to emulate Dr Dean is Fernando Ferrer. He is gearing up to challenge the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, in 2005.

John Kerry campaigning
The Kerry camp is trailing behind Bush in terms of funding
He has hired Dean's website people in the hope he can generate the same excitement and energy at a regional level.

Mr Ferrer said the Democrats were pioneering a new way of communicating online, that the Republicans had yet to harness.

"I've seen George Bush's website. I don't think it's particularly impressive," he said.

"It's very controlling, it does not encourage interactivity, and it just tries to give you information.

"I think a Democrat's website ought to be a whole lot better than that. It ought to say 'this is your democracy, this is your moment, tell me what you think. We may not meet on the campaign trail, we may not meet on the street or at the grocery store, but we can meet up right here'."

Dr Dean and Mr Kerry have proved that the internet can reach directly into supporters' wallets, but for how long? Will this be a one-off scenario that future presidential candidates have difficulty matching?

"It's absolutely not an aberration," insisted Convio's Vinay Bhagat.

"We're seeing, at a macro level, significant trends in terms of internet adoption and usage, the ability to reach people through e-mail, and the proportion of funds that are being raised online."

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