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E-elections Featured

9:35am EDT July 22, 2002
At a campaign rally last month, George W. Bush leaned over to running mate Dick Cheney and offered his by now well-known thoughts on the character of a New York Times reporter.

But while some strategists might view calling a journalist an asshole a strategic error (and others might cheer the characterization), the faux pas was the result of a technological mistake -- he thought the microphone was not yet turned on.

Bush, or any other candidate for that matter, can't afford to make the same mistake with his Internet strategy.

The Internet has provided candidates with the ability to send targeted messages en masse. And new technologies continually offer more powerful tools to political hopefuls to reach greater audiences with more refined messages.

But along with that comes the opportunity to make bigger mistakes.

To help keep George W. from repeating his mistakes online, the campaign sought the services of Mike Connell, president of New Media Communications. Connell is a veteran of the political process, having worked for the elder Bush, Congressman Martin Hoke and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.

"My ties to the Bushes go back to 1987 and 1988. I worked for the George Bush for President campaign, the father," Connell explains. "I started out working in Iowa. Then I got tapped by the deputy manager of the campaign, who asked me to go out to Washington (D.C.) to design the tracking system that the campaign used."

After the inauguration in early 1989, just three years out of the University of Iowa, Connell found himself in Washington, D.C., working for the president. After Bush's presidency ended in 1992, Connell worked for a newly elected representative from the West side of Cleveland.

"I was working for a freshman congressman named Martin Hoke," Connell recalls. "That was in early 1993 (in his Washington office). Near the end of 1993, I was married and I had two kids. He asked me if I'd be interested in moving to Cleveland, Ohio, and working out of the district office. (It was) a good opportunity and I'd been travelling back and forth between Cleveland and Washington already.

"I really liked the community. It was about the right size. It basically had everything I needed."

Following the congressional elections in 1994, Connell opened his own shop, New Media Communications, a Web consulting practice that specializes in the political arena. Connell serves as the Web strategist for the George W. Bush campaign, and handled a number of Internet-related projects during the Republican National Convention.

He also works with several Senate and House of Representatives candidates, including Sen. Spence Abraham (Mich.), Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Rep. Heather Wilson (N.M.)

SBN spoke with Bush's Web guru to learn more about the role of the Internet in modern politics.

Technology and media have long played a role in American politics. How has the introduction of the Internet paralleled that trend?

In its most basic sense, what has happened is going back to 1960. The media mix and campaign politics really proved to be the proving ground for television.

That's when it became introduced to campaign politics. What we're seeing here today is a very similar evolution where the media mix is evolving again. And the Internet is becoming mixed in with how we communicate with the masses.

Because the Internet is becoming so commonplace, and so many Americans rely on it as a channel for news and information, it's really a perfect tool.

What does the Internet offer the process that other media can't?

There are some advantages that the Internet has. I don't see television, radio or print going away, but I do see the Internet becoming a stronger component, more interactive than traditional media.

It also allows campaigns to better target their messages. It allows campaigns to talk to people directly, provide unfiltered messages. Quite frankly, it's some of your most effective communications. It's some of the most effective, best-spent money.

How does that compare to more traditional approaches?

Television for instance: Many larger campaigns (focus on) why you're the best candidate, what you're all about. It's a lot of information and not a lot time to do it in. It's a proven fact that if that campaign (puts a Web address) in that ad, people will log onto the site and they'll go out.

They're able to self-collect information. Do they want to know more about the candidate? Then they can go into the bio section. If they want to know the candidate's positions on the major issues of the day, or their pet issues, they can drill down into the agenda of the Web site.

Someone actively following the campaign can find out what the campaign is putting out in terms of new information that particular week.

Television is a passive medium. People simply sit back as the tube beams images and sounds at them. To find information on the Internet, people must actively seek it. How does that factor into a Web strategy?

People make choices every day. People choose to vote; people choose not to vote. Somebody who's already made up his mind may not have a reason to go to the Web site.

Maybe they want to get more involved in the campaign. Maybe they want to volunteer or make a financial contribution. Those sorts of activities can be supported via the Internet.

Maybe they just want to stay better informed on what's happening on the campaign trail. View the new information or sign up to get e-mail alerts when key things are going to be in their area.

What can we expect in the future?

What we're seeing is evolution taking place. Our first inclination was that we can do video delivery over the Internet. Let's take our campaign ads that we spent thousands of dollars to produce and digitize them and repurpose them.

It was a good idea, but the thought started to evolve. That's great the ads take advantage of new capabilities. E-mail has started to evolve. (We are working on) the delivery of more interactive messages -- e-commercials, radical mail. You're going to see a lot more sound and video. How to reach: New Media Communications, (216) 781-3172

Daniel G. Jacobs (djacobs@sbnnet.com) is senior editor of SBN.