When he formally announces his run for president, which is expected to happen on September 6, former Sen. Fred Thompson can finally behave in all ways like a candidate. He can begin to plead for votes, advertise, engage in full-fledged fundraising, and more.
But in one realm of politics—the online world where the candidates are moving rapidly, voters are flocking, and federal regulations are struggling to catch up—the change will not be so dramatic.
The reason is that the Web site of the sometimes lawyer/lobbyist/politician/actor already looks and functions much the same as those of the 17 other presidential candidates who had already announced. Some critics even complain he is taking advantage of loopholes in federal law.
A detailed content analysis of Thompson’s site on the eve of his entering the race finds that it is already among the most sophisticated of anyone running. It exceeds all of his GOP rivals in interactivity and is notably active in fundraising. It also clearly tries to position him as a conservative heir to Ronald Reagan.
Only one item is notably absent—and perhaps as an actual candidate Thompson may feel this has to change: To date, Thompson’s site is the only one that does not reveal where he stands on any issues.
Through August, Thompson was, in the technical language of the Federal Election Commission, “testing the waters,” an official status that limits what a potential candidate can and cannot do.1
Election regulations exempt anyone “testing the waters,” from certain disclosure requirements but also limits their fundraising, bars them from calling themselves a candidate and restricts them from advertising on television, radio or in newspapers. But the law has yet to be updated to reflect, and when it comes to advertising even exempts, the digital domain.2 Much of what is forbidden in the old media Thompson’s site was doing online.
Indeed, Thompson has relied heavily on the Internet as a megaphone to generate buzz, gain supporters, and raise money. How developed is his online campaign? How does his Web site, imwithfred.com, compare with those of the declared candidates? How do you run for president online when federal rules limit you from doing so in the conventional world?
1This term, as defined by the Federal Elections Commission, is an exemption allowed to individuals who are exploring “the feasibility of becoming a candidate” without actually declaring their candidacy and following the federal campaign regulations. This is different from an “exploratory” status that other candidates have used for extended periods. To see when the testing-the-waters exemption no longer applies, please see www.fec.gov/pages/brochures/candregis.shtml.
211 CFR 100.26 of the Federal Election Commission regulations define public communication by means “of any broadcast, cable, or satellite communication, newspaper, magazine, outdoor advertising facility, mass mailing, or telephone bank to the general public…” and specifically state that public political advertising does not include “communications over the Internet, except for communications placed for a fee on another person’s Web site.”