Kerry Campaign Dumps Cash on Web

Louise Witt


Oct 5, 2004

The presidential campaigns and the major political parties have mostly ignored online advertising as a way to reach voters in the 2004 election, according to a report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. That is, until now.

After Thursday night's debate between Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush, the Democratic National Committee bought roughly $400,000 worth of ads on 50 sites, including USA Today, The Washington Post, MSNBC, The New York Times,,, and The DNC also bought ads on local news sites. In a few days, it almost doubled its entire online advertising budget for the previous eight months.

And the DNC isn't done. The party plans to have another online media blitz after Tuesday night's debate between the vice presidential candidates, Sen. John Edwards and Vice President Dick Cheney, said Jano Cabrera, the DNC's communications director.

The DNC's web effort last week capitalized on the number of Americans who watched the 90-minute debate between Kerry and Bush. According to Nielsen Media Research, the 90-minute debate drew in more than 62 million viewers. In contrast, only about 24 million tuned in to listen to Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention this summer.

"Viewership for the debate is akin to the finale of Friends, in terms of raw numbers of viewers," said Cabrera. "With that level of interest, we knew that a number of people would rush to the internet to find out more information about John Kerry and George W. Bush and we wanted to have a strong online presence."

Doug Kelly, the DNC's director of technology, put it more bluntly: "The strategy was to stop George W. Bush and the Republicans from stealing the post-debate spin like they did in 2000. They dominated the post-debate spin then and we were not going to let that happen again."

After Al Gore's first debate with Bush, advisers to the Democratic candidate thought he had won. But Gore was considered the loser hours later, due to the perception that his audible sighs made him seem condescending. "The Republicans ran a very good operation in the past," Kelly said. "They pointed out one nugget in Gore's performance and drove the media to that nugget."

This time, the DNC ads, which ran Thursday through Sunday, directed supporters to participate in online polls about the debate, such as those being conducted on the Los Angeles Times' site and on, as well as to go to the media contact page on the DNC site. Once there, supporters were told how to write a letter to the editor of their local newspaper or how to call in to a local radio show.

Kelly said the DNC site had so many visitors that it deactivated the visitor log feature. "It takes up so much bandwidth, so we turned it off," he said. Kelly said Kerry's site,, had three times the number of visitors the night of the debate that it had the night of his convention speech. Twenty thousand signed up to be volunteers.

The DNC also raised $4 million the day of the debate, said Nancy Eiring, director of the DNC's grass-roots fund-raising efforts. Between 9 p.m. and midnight, she said, the party brought in $10,000 a minute. Eiring added that the DNC ads on national websites had a staggeringly high click-through rate of 5 percent.

Until the debates, neither the parties nor the campaigns used the internet to promote their candidates to any great extent, said Michael Cornfield, a senior research consultant at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the author of the report. Instead, they used the web to raise money, organize volunteers and encourage supporters to register to vote.

"This teaches us that online advertising, like online fund raising, works best if it exploits the moment and takes advantage of a large audience created by other means," Cornfield said. "They use the other media to build an audience for them and then they attempt to convert that interest into an opportunity for persuasion and mobilization."

So far, Cornfield hasn't noticed that the Republican National Committee or the Bush campaign has stepped up their online advertising. Calls to both groups for comment were not returned. But as Election Day nears, Cornfield said he expects both campaigns to buy more online ads. "It's all fast and furious now," he said.

In his report, Cornfield found that from January through August, the parties and the campaigns spent more than $100 on TV ads for every dollar they spent on online ads.

For the first eight months of 2004, the Kerry campaign outspent the Bush campaign by a 3-to-1 margin on online ads, the report said. Kerry's campaign spent $1.3 million, while Bush's laid out $419,000. However, the Republican Party was more lavish with its internet-advertising buys. Through the end of August, the RNC spent $487,000 on online ads compared to the DNC's $257,000.

With its massive online media buy after the first debate, the Democratic Party surpassed the Republicans.

"After the first debate, the ads running on, for example, were another way for the Democrats to spread their message that Kerry had won the debates among opinion leaders and decision makers," said Brian Reich, director of Mindshare Interactive Campaigns' Boston operations and editor of Campaign Web Review. "In a close election like we have this year, a slight tactical advantage like this one could shift the balance of the race in the Democrats' direction."

Cornfield was surprised that the presidential campaigns, the parties and advocacy groups didn't have more extensive online ad campaigns, especially since web advertising is becoming increasingly popular. In his report, he wrote that ad spending on the internet is growing faster than in any other media. Online advertising revenue is expected to reach $8 billion by the end of 2004.

"Yet, for all the online experimentation the campaigns have attempted this year, they have not ventured aggressively into online advertising," he wrote. "This is surprising because online ads can reach new, undecided and wavering voters in the demographic and geographic niches where they are thought to reside."

In the last days of the campaign, that's changing. "We will do anything we can to get the grass roots fired up and active," said DNC's Kelly. "We rule out nothing."