Social Studies November 2005

On the Web, Business Finds a New Way of Doing Politics

Businesses are using company-sponsored Web sites to spur employees to get involved in politics. See for yourself at www.igrc.net.
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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.

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."

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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