Shop Early and Often

Shop Early and Often

Shop Early and Often

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Sept. 12 2000 11:30 PM

Shop Early and Often

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

Vice President Gore probably never imagined that online sales of his book Earth in the Balance might someday help finance the California Republican Party. But with the newest online fund-raising strategy, unveiled in early August at Republicanshopping.com, GOP supporters can buy a copy of Gore's book and have a 67-cent rebate sent to the state party.

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For an organization that raises and spends millions of dollars in each election cycle, 67 cents doesn't amount to much. But state party officials and executives at Ebates.com, the San Francisco e-commerce company that built Republicanshopping.com, have lofty goals for the site. The partners say they hope to encourage California's 5.4 million Republican households to make $50 million or $60 million worth of monthly online purchases within a year.

"We could basically create a self-sustaining party on this Web site if properly marketed," said state GOP spokesman Stuart DeVeaux.

The political site is a modification of Ebates' online mall. Both attract merchants with the promise of large numbers of shoppers. They attract shoppers with the promise of rebates—typically 10 percent to 13 percent. In the case of the GOP site, Ebates sends the refunds directly to the state party. Because the party cannot accept corporate contributions, Ebates issues the checks in the names of the shoppers, whose names are also reported to state campaign-finance regulators.

Republicanshopping.com is the latest fund-raising innovation put forth by state parties, who have taken the lead among political organizations in finding creative new ways to make money online. The Utah Republican Party last year began raising money by offering Internet access to its members. Both national parties later picked up on the scheme, which is what both Ebates and the California GOP hope will happen with their effort.

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As part of the deal, which is scheduled to run beyond the November election, the state Republican Party has promised to deliver Ebates an undisclosed number of new shoppers. The GOP is promoting the site at its fall state convention, in e-mails to supporters, and on the state party Web site, which had 8,000 unique visitors in August, according to a GOP official.

"We are basically making sure that every Republican in the state knows about Republicanshopping.com," DeVeaux said.

If successful, the site could represent a fundamental shift in fund-raising strategy. Candidates often complain about the amount of time they have to spend on the phone asking for money and on direct mail efforts, which can cost just as much as they take in. With the shopping site, DeVeaux said, the party can raise money without pressuring potential donors with hard sales tactics.

And, most important, it can raise money even when its supporters aren't thinking about politics. "It provides us with the ability to keep the Republican brand name in households year round," DeVeaux said.

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Ebates co-founder Alessandro Isolani said his company was apolitical and would be willing to partner with Democrats as well. However, some vendors have pulled out of the GOP version of the site, Isolani said. And for Ebates to find new political partners, Isolani would have to convince his current one to forfeit a strategic advantage: The California GOP also owns the Web address democraticshopping.com.

Voter.com Withdraws FEC Request

Voter.com last month withdrew its request that the Federal Elections Commission determine whether it and other similar political portals were required to charge candidates for space on their sites. Voter.com currently charges candidates. Others, such as Grassroots.com, do not.

Voter.com withdrew its request after the FEC wanted more information about the company's broader business model, said Cleta Mitchell, an attorney for the company.

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Mitchell said the decision not to pursue the advisory opinion would not put it in any legal jeopardy but could perhaps put it at a competitive disadvantage. "You cannot get in trouble if you charge," she said. "You can only get in trouble if you don't charge."

A separate complaint filed by the National Law and Policy Center against Grassroots.com that also asks the FEC to rule on whether free Web space is an illegal corporate contribution is still pending and may not be settled before the November elections.

"The FEC said they would take a look at this whole arena probably after the beginning of the year," Mitchell said.

Reform Party's Online Battle Continues

A battle for control of the Reform Party's Web site remains unresolved after federal judges in Virginia and California refused requests from supporters of Pat Buchanan to force rival John Hagelin to stop calling himself the party's nominee.

A federal district court judge in Long Beach, Calif., will hear Buchanan supporters' latest complaint about the Hagelin campaign Wednesday.

FEC auditors recommended last week that Buchanan, not Hagelin, receive the $12.6 million in federal taxpayer money that is due the Reform Party presidential candidate, but the FEC has not even touched the Web site dispute.