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The Political Dot-Com Boom

On the Web, business finds a new way of doing politics

I am the CEO of a medium-sized company, and you work for me.

OK, this is not strictly accurate. But assume it to be true for purposes of this article, the better to understand a technology by which business hopes to make itself the most effective vote mobilizer in the country.

That would be, if it happened, an important change, even a historic one. Until recently, the standard modus operandi of the business lobby was to cut checks to politicians and parties. BIPAC, the Business Industry Political Action Committee (motto: "Electing Business to Congress"), knows all about the dollar game. Established in 1963, it was the country's first business PAC.

Today, BIPAC is one among hundreds of business PACs, some of them larger and richer. Gregory S. Casey, the group's 52-year-old president and CEO, says that when he joined in 1999, after a stint as the Senate's sergeant at arms, he found "a place that had gone kind of stale." The sort of candidate information that had been BIPAC's stock-in-trade was now freely available online, and many companies had opened their own Washington offices and lobbying shops.

Elections, meanwhile, were close, and voter turnout was displacing cash as the decisive variable. "Money is not as important in elections as it once was," Casey says. "You have a million-dollar PAC in a $4 billion election. So what?"

For all its deep pockets, business has nothing like labor's shoe-leather brigades to bring voters to the polls. It does, however, have three other assets. One, employees. Two, credibility with those employees. BIPAC cites in-house surveys finding that 13 percent of employed voters regard political information provided by their employers as the most credible they receive, matching the percentage who view union information as the most credible. Third, access to employees. When the boss sends an e-mail, workers usually read it.

What if a way could be found to combine the effectiveness of direct voter contact with the economics of the Internet? Political outreach then becomes "infinitely more economical," says Dirk Van Dongen, the president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors. "Phenomenally more economical."

Thus was born the Prosperity Project, which is real. And InterGlobal RauchCorp, which isn't.

P2, as BIPAC calls it, was started in 2000, with about 50 participating companies and trade associations. By 2004, institutional participants numbered more than 900, reaching about 20 million workers, according to Casey. He hopes for 1,500 participating firms in 2006 and believes the sky is the limit, thanks to the Internet's economies of scale.

Under the program, employees receive company e-mails and paycheck-stuffers driving them to a corporate public-affairs Web site. There they find candidate guides, voter information, and forms for instantly sending mail to Congress, all a click or two away.

The P2 pages look just like the rest of the company's Web site; in fact, however, P2 sites are run from BIPAC's Web servers in Washington, using technology, data, and design templates that BIPAC provides to its members, who pay anywhere from $2,500 to $25,000 to join.

In principle, any company, from General Motors to Randy's Radiator Repair, can have its own grassroots-lobbying and voter-mobilization site up and running within a few weeks of signing on with BIPAC. And in practice? Enter IGRC.

That is my company, "founded" to demonstrate how the system works. I pretended to be chief executive of a middle-sized construction and building-materials company based in Spokane, Wash. I picked some key issues that my company cares about. Then I asked BIPAC to build me a P2 site, with all the bells and whistles.

From the first BIPAC orientation e-mail ("We are very excited to have InterGlobal RauchCorp on board with the Prosperity Project") to a fully functional draft of the site took two weeks. Fine-tuning took several more working days. Consulting with me on successive drafts, BIPAC did all the design and technical work. It also offered, as needed, political consulting for greenhorns: advice on which key issues to choose, suggested lists of votes to include in candidate ratings, and tips on what I should and should not say to workers. (For example, never tell employees how to vote; it's counterproductive.)

You can find the result at www.igrc.net. It is hosted on BIPAC's servers and works just like a real company's P2 site. Contact might begin with an e-mail from me telling you that an important election or congressional vote is coming up and suggesting you visit the Web site for more information. (The "View Archived Messages" link shows generic examples of the e-mails that employees might expect to receive.)

Once you land on the site, you can click on "Top Issues" to learn the company's position on trade, taxes, health care, and litigation reform. (I took standard pro-business positions.) Click on "About Your Elected Officials," enter your ZIP code, and up comes a list of your elected officials, including the records of your House and Senate representatives on key votes, complete with pretty green check marks and ugly red Xs.

Do those Xs make you see red? Want to do something about it? A click on "Take Action" lets you e-mail your senators or House member about litigation reform or the estate tax. You can send my pre-written letter—"Tell Your Senators to Repeal the Death Tax Permanently!"—or write your own. (Try it. No actual letter will be sent, and any personal information you enter will not be retained or harvested.)

Most important, clicking on "Register & Vote," and then entering your ZIP code (again, try it), takes you straight to links where you can download the paperwork you need—no matter where you live—for voter registration, early or absentee voting, and an overseas ballot. BIPAC says its sites provided almost 1.7 million voter forms in 2004.

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