Within hours of his upset victory over Texas Gov. George W. Bush in New Hampshire's Republican primary on Feb. 1, Arizona Sen. John McCain received an avalanche of campaign contributions totaling $300,000. Six weeks later, the total had mushroomed to $6.4 million.
What's remarkable about the sudden infusion of cash is the way it arrived -- via McCain2000.com. Cyber-savvy supporters of the senator's unsuccessful run for the White House could not only read his speeches and issue statements on his Web site but also send donations using credit cards.
The major party candidates, Bush (georgewbush.com) and Vice President Al Gore (algore2000.com), have set up similar sites to replenish their war chests in anticipation of this summer's aggressive issue ad skirmishes. But neither candidate has come close to raising as much money on the Net as McCain. As of March 6, Gore -- the most vocal Internet supporter in American politics -- had raised only $1.1 million through his site. Bush came in a distant third with just $400,000.
Internet-based political campaigning began with the 1996 presidential election, when both the Clinton-Gore and Dole-Kemp campaigns set up Web sites to solicit volunteers and disseminate information about their stands on important political issues of the day, such as Medicare funding and tax reform. At the same time, both parties began using the Internet as a platform for spontaneous, grass-roots discussions about political issues.
The Internet offers several advantages over traditional campaign platforms, such as television advertising, public appearances on the campaign trail and televised debates. For one thing, it's cheaper to create and update Web sites than it is to make in-person campaign appearances. Perhaps more important, the Internet enables candidates, parties and advocacy groups to make claims about issues and other political figures that can reach millions of individuals before the opposition has a chance to rebut them.
McCain, for example, created a furor among fellow Republicans last fall when he spotlighted a $2.2 million appropriation for sewer construction for the 2002 winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. McCain's Web site called the appropriation “pork-barrel spending related to the rise of soft money.” The money was earmarked within a larger spending bill and appropriated, at the behest of Sen. Robert F. Bennett, R-Utah, without a hearing.
“I am unaware of any money that was given by anybody in any amounts that influenced my action here,” said an incensed Bennett during an Oct. 14 floor debate on campaign finance reform. “But I have been accused on a Web site, for the entire world to see, of caving in to soft money. I have been accused of being corrupt. . . . The issue is whether or not a member of the Senate, when he is accused of corruption, has a right to know the details of the corruption.”
McCain was quick to defend his charge. “[T]he people of Arizona would at least like to have a hearing before their tax dollars go to the state of Utah. This is, in my view, something that we have to obviously fix,” McCain replied. “I do not know if we will ever stop this practice of earmarking and pork barreling, but I will never stop resisting it.”