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Congressional Campaigns Take Fights Online, But Is Anyone Logging On?

By Samson Habte
Capital News Service
Friday, Oct. 8, 2004

WASHINGTON - Every major party candidate for Congress in Maryland plans to have a Web site touting their campaigns. Everybody but Rep. Al Wynn.

While the six-term Largo Democrat has no campaign site, his opponent, John McKinnis, maintains a slick, updated Web site, where supporters can learn the 4th District Republican's stand on the issues, how they can volunteer for his campaign or donate money.

But most political experts expect Wynn's techno-challenged campaign to win handily in November: Although Internet electioneering has increased dramatically in recent election cycles, experts have expressed doubts about the ability to turn technological savvy into votes.

"Campaign Web sites are novelty items, like modern-day bumper stickers or buttons: You'll get them, but do they get you votes?" asked David Dulio, a professor of political science at Oakland University in Michigan. "I don't think so."

Dulio, who wrote a study on Internet campaigning in congressional races, said there is no evidence that such Web sites generate much traffic from undecided voters.

"The types of people who go to candidate Web sites are supporters, so you're preaching to the converted," said Dulio.

Most political experts, campaign consultants and even Web page designers agree that the Internet will not take replace more traditional forms of campaigning for state or local campaigns. But they said having a site cannot hurt: They are low-cost ways to keep in touch with the grass roots and convey a sense of professionalism.

"If someone has an amateurish, one-page Web site with old content and few links it creates a feeling that the candidate shouldn't be taken seriously," said Frank Lesesne, a president of f2 Technology, which develops software for campaign sites.

Ben Mack, the campaign manager for 5th District Republican challenger Brad Jewitt, agreed. He said Jewitt is running "a professional, legitimate and mainstream campaign and we want the Web site to reflect that."

Building and maintaining a functional site is relatively inexpensive, said Hollis "Chip" Felkel, founder of the Felkel Group, a consulting firm that helps campaigns develop Web strategies. Felkel said that an accessible, interactive Web site can be maintained for the duration of a campaign for "about $2,000."

Felkel said such a site can strengthen relationships at the grass-roots level by drawing dedicated supporters or "true believers . . . people who will sign up to do the campaign work that others wouldn't -- who help you canvass neighborhoods and who will get the bumper stickers on cars at football games."

Felkel also said that campaign sites can alert less dedicated supporters to volunteer opportunities that do not require as much time or effort.

"Picture a busy professional from a two-income household with kids -- it's going to be hard to get that person to stuff envelopes at headquarters," he said. "But they can merge their (personal e-mail lists) with e-mail addresses collected through the Web site and send out a mass e-mail to acquaintances in which they voice support for a candidate."

Mark Montini, who founded a company that helps Republicans in local races develop Internet strategies, agreed that Web sites are important tools for communicating with grass-roots supporters. But the former campaign manager said candidates should be wary of spending too much to get online.

"The Internet is the easiest, cheapest, quickest and most efficient way to get information out about the candidate, but in terms of getting votes, it is the last place to spend a lot of money," said Montini, whose firm handles Jewitt's Web strategy.

Montini said that "money would be better spent on traditional methods of political communication, which encompass television, radio and direct mail." He advises his clients to spend no more than 2 percent of their entire campaign budget on Web sites, and 30 to 40 percent on direct mail. A congressional campaign in a suburb of a major city would spend about $250,000 to send out between 500,000-750,000 pieces of mail, he said.

Richard Davis, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, said it is hard to see how Internet campaigning will ever be a potent tool on the "vote-winning" side of congressional campaigns.

Davis, author of "Campaigning Online," said that information on candidate Web sites is no more useful than direct-mail solicitations -- if voters can find it. He said there is no evidence that many voters seek out campaign information on the Internet. With direct-mail brochures dropped on their doorsteps, they do not have a choice.

"If you could get them to the water they might drink," Davis said. "The problem is getting them to the water."

Copyright 2004 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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