The Prosperity Project: Corporate Voter Outreach on the Sly

The Prosperity Project: Corporate Voter Outreach on the Sly

BY Brian Reich | Friday, December 10 2004

Imagine a political operation with the ability to speak directly to millions of American workers in the setting where they are most vulnerable to persuasion: the corporate workplace. And imagine it using the highly developed communications infrastructure built by thousands of businesses to quietly distribute partisan information to the masses. Now imagine this happening thousands of times in states all across the country. Sound a little far-fetched?

Allow me to introduce the Prosperity Project: a coordinated effort to rally support from within the business community in support of President Bush and Republican congressional candidates during the 2004 elections. The Prosperity Project turned the communications infrastructure that American businesses rely on every day – email, company intranets, and websites – into tools for political activism. As Darrell Shull, the Vice President of Political Operations and Executive Director of the Prosperity Project, explained to me by phone last week, “the marriage of technology and the delivery of political information in the workplace is a perfect marriage. The American business community uses these tools every day to communicate with their employees. Our strategy has simply been ‘talk to your employees about political issues using the tools they already utilize every day.’”

The Prosperity Project was created in 1999 by the Business Industry Political Action Committee, or BIPAC, the country’s oldest business PAC. With little notice, the project has become one of the largest, most well-funded education and get-out-the-vote support efforts in the country. According to the Boston Globe, groups including The Business Roundtable, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the National Federation of Independent Business used the Prosperity Project as the vehicle for aggressively contacting employees, educating them on pro-business issues, and working to get them to the polls this past year. The Prosperity Project’s efforts were focused in Ohio, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Wyoming and more than a dozen other battleground states.

When the Prosperity Project first launched, the concept was simply to get employers to give information to their employees about how candidates stood on key issues. In 1999, BIPAC put the voting records of all congressional candidates online and encouraged employers to print and hand them out. Shull explained, “We hadn’t envisioned using the web as the mechanism. But we learned quickly, the real opportunity was to give them tools that they could optimize themselves, and use the web to push those tools out.” By early 2000, employers were given access to web-based tools to assist employees with voter registration and GOTV. BIPAC only focused on federal candidates during the 2000 election, but in 2001, began to include state level candidates as well. And in 2003, state-specific Prosperity Projects were organized in conjunction with the local chambers of commerce and trade associations.

In preparation for the 2004 election, BIPAC launched its “Easy Vote” system, complete with customizable voter registration, absentee ballot request, and polling-location location tools. Business groups coordinated to produce non-partisan voter guides, like this one offered by the Iowa Prosperity Project. (In Oklahoma, the Prosperity Project launched the nation's first Spanish language economic Web site.) The guides, offered online and available for download, showed how candidate positions on a handful of key business issues, including Economic Growth and Opportunity, Tax Policy, Environmental Policy, Trade, Technology, Civil Justice Reform, Healthcare, Energy, and Homeland Security.

There were no endorsements, nor were employers telling employees to vote for one candidate or another. But Shull explained that the key issues were considered part of a “consensus business agenda.” Topping that agenda was cutting taxes and reducing government regulation of business. It was clear from the available information that President Bush and other Republican candidates were considered better for business.

Was the Prosperity Project a success? More than 900 businesses and trade associations participated during the 2004 cycle, according to BIPAC. In all, more than 850,000 voter registration forms were downloaded through the various Prosperity Project websites. And BIPAC says it received more than 6.5 million individual visits to its state-based websites, and drew about 25 million page views. On the day before Election Day, when ClickZ reported that 623,000 unique visitors were accessing the Bush and Kerry campaign websites, BIPAC was tracking some 600,000 unique visitors through the Prosperity Project network of sites. On Election Day, another 800,000 unique visitors were through the Prosperity Project network of sites, compared to 862,000 unique users combined for the two Presidential candidates. In other words, when it mattered most, as many – and in some cases more -- people got information from the Prosperity Project as did directly from the two Presidential campaign websites combined. The effort cost BIPAC less than $10 million (compared to Democratic voter mobilization groups who reportedly spent more than $100 million).

BIPAC targeted 20 million employees in battleground states this year. Of the 160 member companies of the Business Roundtable, 91 participated. Overall, Shull said that more than 18 million employees were reached. And in Ohio, managers pointed more than 50,000 employees to a customized website featuring ratings of the candidate’s votes on business issues (one rating reportedly gave Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry a zero last year on votes affecting manufacturers).

There is no guarantee that the system produced only Republican votes. According to one article, “employees who receive information from their employers are 15 to 30 percent more likely to vote.” The article goes on to suggest a strong tendency among employees to follow their boss’s lead in picking candidates. Darrell Shull adds, “the ease of using these communications has created a new corporate culture to talk about these issues. Companies support new voter outreach measures – handing out voter guides and other materials that they wouldn’t have done before. The issues were already there. Technology just made it easier.” And post-Election surveys indicate that candidates who were rated as pro-jobs were overwhelmingly elected in both the Senate and the House.

Everyone has a theory about why Election 2004 turned out as it did, with George W. Bush winning re-election by more than 3.5 million votes (or by barely 70,000 in Ohio, depending on who you ask). Some argue that the focus on religious conservatives provided the needed push towards victory for the Republicans. If that is true, the Democrats probably never saw it coming. Others believe relatively low turnout by young people doomed John Kerry’s challenge. If that made the difference, then Republicans were lucky that this largely anti-Bush constituency didn’t show their anger at the polls. But it is hard to deny the impact that the Prosperity Project had on this year’s election.

Brian Reich is the editor of Campaign Web Review, a blog examining the use of the Internet by candidates, campaigns and organizations, activists and the media during the 2004 cycle. He was credentialed to blog the Democratic and Republican Conventions as well as the Presidential Debates. He has spent much of his life working with campaigns and political organizations, helping to direct dozens of campaigns across the country. He also served as Vice President Gore's Briefing Director in the White House and during the 2000 campaign. Brian is now a strategic consultant and Director of Boston Operations for Mindshare Interactive Campaigns.

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