Stumping in Cyberspace

Scott Williams

Hispanic Business Monthly

Jun 1, 2005

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, now chairman of the Democratic National Com-mittee (DNC), is likely to go down in history for two things: the primal scream that made voters question his sanity, and using the Internet to raise money and mobilize supporters.

Hispanic Business Monthly

The latter contribution is considered the more significant of the two, and it has people like Juan Proaño, co-founder and president of Plus Three, an online fund-raising company with offices in Washington, D.C. and New York, eager to demonstrate how his company can link candidates to constituents and, most importantly, their wallets.

"There's never been anything like the Internet for fund raising, which has changed the way people think and the way they approach fund raising forever," says Mr. Proaño, 32, a Miami native of Peruvian and Colombian descent.

Plus Three, founded with partners David Brunton and Thomas Burke, was born in 2002 out of a merger of several companies that brought together expertise in online marketing, design, and software development. The company works with private corporations, nonprofits, and political organizations to communicate with constituents and solicit donations.

Plus Three might be just another company had it not been for good timing and Mr. Proaño's decision to keep in touch with a former colleague who happened to be working for the DNC on a technology project. His colleague made him a job offer, which Mr. Proaño accepted because, he says, it was the biggest technology project going at the time. The fact that it might affect the 2004 presidential election also played a role in his decision.

The project involved building a computer database for the Democrats that would compete with the Voter Vault database compiled by the Republican Party beginning in the mid-1990s. The Republicans had information on millions of constituents, while the Democrats had collected a mere 65,000 to 80,000 e-mail addresses.

Plus Three helped the DNC build a database called DataMart containing the names of 166 million registered voters. The database

The Democrats and, later, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, used the DataMart list to contact people by telephone, direct mail and, primarily, e-mail, targeting them with ads and political messages tailored to each person. Their efforts proved so successful that the DNC raised $85 million in 2003-04 and raised more money than the Republican National Committee for the first time ever.

"All the candidates and campaign committees we worked with actually gained ground against their counterparts," Mr. Proaño says. Those results assure a permanent place for the Internet in political campaigns. Companies like Plus Three can help candidates use the Internet to accept registrations, track donations, and write letters, blogs, and petitions. "It makes everything you were doing before easier, cheaper, and faster," says Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet (IPDI) at George Washington University. Ms. Darr says campaigns must still rely on fund raising, organizing people, and getting people to vote. The Internet makes it more efficient, she says.

"The beauty of the Internet is the cost efficiencies in communicating to constituents," says Edgar Duarte, CEO of Ontime Fundraiser Inc., a Miami online fund-raising firm. Anyone seeking to raise funds can do it faster and cheaper using the Internet, and those wishing to communicate a message or organize support can now reach millions in the blink of an eye.

Ms. Darr predicts that Internet usage will play an integral part in future campaign strategies, although its use will never be perfected. "It's always going to be a work in progress because the technology is just going to be leaping ahead," she says.

As the Hispanic population continues to grow, connecting with Hispanic voters will be among the top priorities for candidates, according to Mr. Proaño. "There's a big battle brewing between both parties to take that large constituency group and start to persuade them," he says. "There needs to be more effort and more resources poured into reaching our community."

To do that, Mr. Proaño believes it's important to return to the basics of properly identifying the estimated 35 million Hispanics in the United States. "We need to start there," he says, "and we need to go beyond traditional surname matching." The next step is to attach statistical data to each person that will help candidates, nonprofit organizations, or corporations

"Tapping into this highly interconnected base of Hispanics online can move a large segment of the population in support or against an issue or candidate," Mr. Proaño says. "Internet applications are like a super-powered phone tree, and large-scale mobilization of a particular group can be very influential with decision-makers. I think the party that recognizes it first and moves forward with it is going to get the jump."

The question then becomes: "How do you reach Hispanics?"

Mr. Proaño says Spanish-language radio and television will continue to be effective and, at the moment, more Hispanic phone numbers are available than e-mail addresses. That means phone banks in which volunteers or staffers call to solicit donations or votes will continue to be a popular means of contact. As far as the Internet is concerned, Mr. Proaño believes bilingual and English-dominant Hispanics are more reachable than those who speak Spanish only.

IPDI's Ms. Darr says the Internet has changed political fund raising and opened doors to political participation for people who in the past had little or nothing to say. Previously, political reporters, donors of large sums of money, professional political operatives, state party people, and candidate staffs dominated campaigns.

"What the Internet has done is allow people who are interested in politics but not part of that old clique to actively participate and be empowered," she says. The "old clique" numbered between 100,000 and 150,000 people, Ms. Darr says, compared with the 7 million to 15 million people that the Pew Research Center estimates participated via the Internet in 2004.

"It used to be the case before 2004 that you simply could not succeed at presidential politics unless you focused your efforts on big donors because you just couldn't raise money fast enough otherwise," she says. "What Howard Dean showed ... was that you could use the Internet and raise enough money from small donors not only to make yourself competitive, but in fact to raise more money than anybody else at that point."

Mr. Proaño notes that Hispanic votes did not reach their full potential in 2004, lagging behind Republicans and other minority Democratic groups. He believes that in the future, Hispanic voters will have the greatest impact in western states that have voted Republican in recent elections such as Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado, as well as those states that hang in the balance, including New Mexico and Florida. Young Hispanics growing up with the Internet have the greatest potential impact on the electorate and selecting future presidents.

"Developing more effective techniques to reach out to Hispanics will be critical to the next candidate looking to be elected president," says Mr. Proaño.