Free Minds & Free Markets

The Political Dot-Com Boom

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

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Except when employees voluntarily fill out forms to generate mail or sign up for issue alerts, P2 sites do not collect or track personal information, for fear of scaring away users. They do, however, allow for the kinds of precise metrics that direct-mailers can only dream about. "In the old days," says Van Dongen, "you pushed this information out to folks via the mails. You never had any way of knowing what it did or did not accomplish. With Internet distribution, you can measure visitors, you can measure page views, you can measure downloads, so that you get a much clearer picture of activity."

With big companies rapidly signing up, Van Dongen says, "you've got phenomenal numbers in terms of size of workforces." A 2004 online survey by BIPAC found 24 percent of employees saying that information they received from their employer made them more likely to vote in the election. If, in 2006, BIPAC were to reach 30 million employees and motivate an additional 10 percent of those to vote for pro-business candidates, it would bring 3 million votes to the table.

Casey says that the program's goal is not just to make business the equal of labor in the voter-mobilization game, but to change business's whole approach to politics. "Rather than the last dollar going to grassroots," Casey says, "the first dollar needs to go to grassroots." Think of the Prosperity Project, if you will, as the Wal-Mart of business lobbying. Formerly a political wholesaler, business is going retail.

Michael Barone, the co-author of National Journal's Almanac of American Politics, has noted that 2004 was a contest between the top-down politics of the Industrial Age and the horizontal politics of the Information Age. The Democrats relied on hired operatives, dispatched from party war rooms, to do get-out-the-vote work, whereas the Republicans relied on peer-to-peer networks of local volunteers recruited by e-mail. In 2004, the industrial model did well, but the network model did better.

BIPAC leaves little doubt about which side of the argument it is betting on. It aims to create, Casey says, a new infrastructure for politics. In five or 10 years, workers may feel just as accustomed to visiting company Web sites for legislative scorecards and voter-registration forms as they now feel going to the grocery store to make a bank withdrawal at an ATM.

The Internet has been overhyped before. Often. Perhaps BIPAC, which calls P2 "a revolution ... in how business does politics," is overhyping the Internet again. Still, here is something to think about: BIPAC's 2004 Web effort, with its 900 or more participating companies, reached something like 20 million employees and delivered something like 40 million messages, all at a cost of $6 million. That was 1 percent of TV spending in the presidential race. Political pocket change.

Oh, and don't forget to e-mail your senator about the estate tax. Just click on "Take Action."

© Copyright 2005 National Journal

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.

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