Fernando Ferrer has enlisted Howard Dean’s favorite Internet service provider. Gifford Miller is about to unveil a Website with chat forums. Anthony Weiner is working on anthonyweiner.com. Even cranky Thomas Ognibene, the Queens politician challenging Michael Bloomberg in the Republican primary, is vying for a piece of online action with a Website set to debut in May.
With nineteen months still to go before the election, the city’s mayoral candidates are trying to figure out how to replicate Dean’s successful use of the Internet to raise money and get voters to organize outside traditional political structures. “This is the first time the Internet will be used as a serious political tool in a high-profile New York campaign,” says Andrew Rasiej, an Internet political consultant who advised Dean and has also helped Miller, Ferrer, and Weiner.
Candidates have, of course, used the Internet in past mayoral campaigns, but their sites were basically static online brochures.
Last month, the Ferrer camp hired Convio, Inc.—the service provider that Dean used—whose software will enable Ferrer to target supporters based on borough, ethnicity, age, and issue, and, he hopes, to solicit money from national Latino supporters who want to see New York’s first Hispanic mayor. Small Internet-based contributions may prove especially potent because the city’s matching-fund program kicks in $4 for every $1 raised—making even modest contributions valuable. “We’ll help the Ferrer campaign build a micro-version of what we did for Dean,” says Vinay Bhagat, Convio’s co-founder.
Miller, meanwhile, whose base of educated white liberals is already Web-savvy, is well positioned to inherit Dean’s lists of New York supporters—and their e-mail addresses. “Thousands of Dean alumni in New York are still talking to each other online every day of the week,” says Ethan Geto, who ran Dean’s New York State campaign. “They are almost certainly going to be part of Gifford’s Internet family.”
In the coming weeks, Miller plans to expand his existing site, millerfornewyork.com (now an online scrapbook), so it will connect voters with each other, and, with luck, get them excited about Miller himself. The City Council speaker will also start writing a blog by the end of the year.
So will the Web actually change local campaigns? Ferrer strategist Jefrey Pollock says confidently, “The Web will take its place alongside direct mail, field operations, and TV and radio ads as one of the critical weapons in a citywide campaign’s arsenal.”