Here's why you should--and no, this is not going to be any kind of polemic favoring one candidate or platform over another.
Did you know that $4.2 billion dollars were spent on the last general election? Each party spent roughly $2 billion dollars on its candidates, and the rest went toward various issues and other stuff. $4.2 billion dollars--all spent on one event.
While perhaps as much as 40 percent of that sum went toward T-shirts and dinner parties, analysts estimate that the rest of it went toward media buying, meaning a tidy $2.52 billion was spent--mostly on print and broadcast--with as little as one percent or less having gone to the Web, according to multiple estimates. Some estimates put this figure as low as $15 million for the 2004 cycle. That's not a significant percentage as much as it's a speck of dust.
But, we find ourselves eyeball-to-eyeball with what promises to be a round of tightly contested mid-term elections. So, with more local-targeting options and media products available to candidates, I was really looking forward to attending the Politics Online Conference in Washington, D.C. this week. Why?
Let's face it: as much as our medium has been challenged to climb the mountain of branding, scale the ridge of consumer packaged goods, and wade into the sands of generating an emotional response, it's doubly fascinating to see what we can do for this segment. Effective electioneering requires establishing an emotional connection, and each campaign travels so quickly that accountability doesn't really exist for any media buy. Think about it: if candidates or their handlers were certain that the Web made a favorable difference for their campaign, what do you think would happen in the next election cycle?
Was e-mail targeting available in 2004? No. Do candidates have to adhere to Can Spam tenets in 2006? No. See? It gets pretty interesting, doesn't it? And that's just in e-mail.
Politics Online (www.politicsonline.com) is run by the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet. And IPDI has been run by Carol Darr since 2001. , If you look in the dictionary under "Benevolent DC Insider," it's Darr's photo you'll see. Among her credits: Darr, a professor at the Graduate School of Political Management of The George Washington University, served as the Acting General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Commerce and as Associate Administrator of the Office of International Affairs in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. With this as a backdrop, she really caught my attention when she blithely told me, "a lot of unregulated dollars will be entering online media this year."
Note--when in Washington, it's important to focus when the term "unregulated dollars" is uttered. This is invariably the harbinger of good news.
What Darr was talking about is the fact that election reform has created one major digital loophole. The McCain-Feingold Voter Reform Act, the Googling of which will educate you on election reform, passed in 1997. It was the first significant reformation in how we spend money on elections since 1978. While the enacting of this law regulated all kinds of so-called "soft money," one of the loopholes in McCain-Feingold remains thus: Media companies can spend whatever they want on candidates or issues without reporting it.
It's called a free press. But, until media companies began getting religion on blogs and the Web, this loophole didn't matter much. It will this year.
Think blogs are a big deal to Wal-Mart or Proctor & Gamble? What do you think they can mean to candidates--and their campaign messages--with a budget that's essentially unlimited? There's even legislation proposed to ensure that this is not changed. HR 1606 would exempt the web from Federal Election Commission regulations entirely. If that bill becomes law, watch the insertion orders start rolling in.
Do the readers of your site vote? If you're a buyer, are you interested in accessing some of what may be the biggest windfall to hit the web Since SEM? It's not as difficult to pay attention to what's happening in DC as you might think. Paying heed to Politics Online is a start, as is monitoring the Center for Democracy and Technology (www.cdt.org), PoliticsTV (www.politicstv.com) and the Center for American Progress (www.americanprogress.org).
Critics complain that the Web is good only for preaching to the converted as pertains to elections. When you consider how little each party has spent online thus far, it's easy to understand why these critics don't know what they're talking about. After November's first Tuesday, we'll all know a lot more about it.