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e-lection Wrap Up

A SERIOUS ON THE WAY TO CONCESSION…When a staffer checked the Florida Secretary of State’s Web site, Vice President Al Gore discovered Florida was back in play. That single mouse button click triggered turmoil nationwide as the candidates traded snipes in a highly charged phone call and caffeine-jagged broadcasters backpedaled furiously. But it was just one example of how the Internet weighed in on this year’s election cycle.

SOME SAY THE AGE of Internet politics dawned when Bob Dole mis-announced his site in 1996. Others peg it to Jesse Ventura winning the Minnesota governor’s office with the help of a Web site and e-mail two years later. Yet others claim it made a formal political debut when Sen. John McCain collected $2 million through his Web site in the immediate wake of his landslide win in the New Hampshire primary in early 2000.

There’s still another view. Despite considerable hype, perhaps the Internet has yet to become a player on par with TV-the political sun around which all efforts orbit-in politics, let alone supercede it. “In terms of the Internet, I think we’re in 1952,” says Netelection.org

Editor Steven Schneider, who’s been studying the use of the Internet in this election cycle from his perch at University of Pennsylvania‘s Annenberg Public Policy Center. “We’ll look back and say it was cute.”

The major party conventions first appeared on TV in 1948. Four years later, Ike cut the first presidential TV spot, an ad with dancing elephants that had American Flags wrapped in their trunks and singers chanting, “I like Ike.” That’s the cute Schneider was talking about. By 1960, a TV moment played a pivotal role in the presidential campaign, when Kennedy outperformed, if not outdebated, Nixon on TV. (Those who listened to the debate on radio gave the nod to Nixon; those who watched it on TV favored Kennedy.) Yet Schneider argues that 1968 was the year TV became an integral component of the major campaigns, and we’ve been in the TV age ever since.

Says Schneider, who predicts the next election cycle will be the Internet equivalent of 1968, “This was a transitional year when we had television candidates using the Web.”

In election 2000, just over half of all House and Senate candidates hosted Web sites, according to a survey conducted by Netelection.org. The more competitive the race, the more likely a candidate was to be online, with 78 percent of those running in competitive races establishing a Web presence, compared to 50 percent in non-competitive races. And while there were notable Web flops (news portals not attached to major old-economy media companies that went bust or soon will if they don’t reinvent themselves as selling something other than news, Web debates, and Web coverage of the conventions are three prominent examples), there were also major triumphs.

Internet tools proved powerful for grassroots mobilization and fundraising. McCain collected $10 million in total over the Internet. Rick Lazio claims to have pulled in $2.5 million and scores of other candidates, campaign committees, and interest groups pulled in millions more. Phil Noble of Politics-Online, which raises money over the Internet, estimates that $50 million was raised over the Net in the 2000 cycle. (Approximately $3 billion was raised in total for the congressional and presidential elections this cycle, according to The Center for Responsive Politics.)

The Internet has proven most advantageous to outsiders, be they John McCain or Ralph Nader in 2000, Jesse Ventura in 1998, or the hundreds of third-party candidates. “Insurgency campaigns have made the best use of the Internet,” says Tim Hathaway, president of The Hathaway Group, a conservative computer services and Web design firm. “The major impact is giving people a way to be involved with a campaign that doesn’t have a physical structure to tap into.” Indeed, in addition to raising money, the McCain campaign used its Web site to organize and rally eager volunteers from an e-mail list of 142,000 individuals. When McCai needed signatures to get on the Virginia ballot, volunteers downloaded and collected 17,000 of them.

Ralph Nader raised more than $1 million online and used his party’s Web site and e-mail lists to get people to the stadium rallies he held in major cities across the country. These rallies gave the Nader candidacy the feel of a mass movement and helped drive free coverage in the mainstream media. Unofficially, Nader enthusiasts created Web sites, such as Votetrader.org, Nadertrader.org, and Voteswap2000.com, that allowed Gore supporters in states that were safe for either Gore or Bush to trade votes with Nader supporters in swing states. The goal: drive up Nader’s popular vote totals without jeopardizing Al Gore’s chance at beating Bush. (This, of course, was ultimately unsuccessful. Nader failed to get the 5 percent needed to qualify the Green Party for federal funding yet he still garnered more than 97,000 in Florida, a state Gore eventually lost by a narrow-and hotly contested-margin.)

The dominant campaigns of Bush and Gore used Internet tools to bolster areas in which they felt vulnerable. George W. Bush, who raised record piles of money and stood open to accusations of campaign finance excesses, put a fully searchable campaign contribution database on his site. “He was standing in front of his contributors,” says an admiring Schneider. Bush, who was also seen as light on the issues, packed his site with speeches and detailed policy proposals. In addition, visitors to the Bush site were welcomed daily, and told of a task they could undertake to aid his cause.

If Bush was vulnerable on credibility, Gore was vulnerable on personality. Gore used his Web site to personalize himself and his campaign, and to motivate supporters. Says Tony Byrne, senior vice president for Web design at IDEV, the firm that built the final version of Al Gore’s Web site, “The Gore people learned early on how to take converts and turn them into zealots.”

They did this by letting them customize the Web site, organizing the material by issues or by demographic  information for more than 20 groups, including veterans, African-Americans, firefighters, rural Americans, and Americans with disabilities. Gore supporters could also create a personal Web page from the site’s material and e-mail it to 10 of their friends. The entire process took less than five minutes. “Gore went the extra mile to try to let users put their faces on the Web site,” says Schneider. “The Gore campaign took their site and turned their supporters into campaigners.”

One thing this election cycle made clear: It wasn’t the fancy 360-degree Web cams that Internet users neglected in droves during the political conventions or any other cutting-edge technology that proved most useful to the political process. From fundraising to turning out supporters, to getting press releases to the media, it was old-fashioned e-mail that won the award hands down for being the most effective Internet tool. Once a campaign has a person’s e-mail address, it can communicate with him or her directly, be it to ask for money, attend a rally, send an e-mail, or pick up a phone and call 10 friends on behalf of a presidential hopeful. “The main thing candidates want is the e-mail address,” says Marion Just, a political scientist at Wellesley College who’s been studying the Internet and politics since 1992. “What the Internet does of a broadcasting nature is minor compared to the direct contact.”

Anne Kobus, who worked on Gore’s site for IDEV, agrees. Says Kobus: “E-mail was the Killer App for this election cycle. We really tried to thread e-mail into every application and page on the site.”

While television is the benchmark against which the Internet is judged, the reliance on e-mail suggests other old economy technologies might be more appropriate bases for comparison. Television is a mass media; one that fed very few choices until recently. People didn’t have much choice regarding the information they received on TV, whether it was from the three network news sources or the commercials that filled the space between the network shows. By saturating the airwaves, candidates and news directors could force-feed information to all but the few Americans who eschewed TV altogether. That’s no longer the case on television, and it’s certainly not the case with the Internet, where users must seek out the information.

A better fit for comparison are two other old economy technologies, direct mail and phone banks, where candidates and interest groups contact individuals directly with customized pitches for money and support. The thing the Internet does best is reduce transaction costs, the effort or expense it takes to complete a deal. Even with a computer dialer, a volunteer working a phone bank can only call one person at a time. With e mail, hundreds of messages can blast out simultaneously. Once on a Web site, interested voters can download reams of information.

“I think we’ll move from soundbite politics to megabyte politics,” says Schneider. “Soundbites give you eight seconds. With a megabyte you may be able to get someone’s attention for eight minutes. That’s a quantum leap forward.” So, it’s this narrower candidate-to-voter communication in which the Internet excelled this election cycle. It also excelled in one other area: allowing individuals to go around, or sometimes straight through, former gatekeeper media institutions and access the source documents and data driving the news. Sometime after 2:00 a.m., Wednesday, November 8th, Vice President Al Gore, on his way to deliver his concession speech, got word from a staffer who’d been checking the Florida Secretary of State’s Web site. When the official vote numbers posted didn’t conform to network predictions, Gore decided he’d wait out the official count. In the history books that may prove the real moment the Internet arrived as a potent political force.

Posting in the WILDERNESS

If a politician talks on the Web does anybody hear him?

OVER THE-TOP HYPE about the Web’s role in election year 2000 preceded both the Republican and the Democratic conventions. “The phrase ‘politics as usual’ is irrelevant in the new world of online activism,” declared Ron Howard, chairman and CEO of SpeakOut.com, a political Web portal with a mission to give the ordinary Joe a voice. “We are pleased to partner with both the Republican and Democratic parties as they pave the way for a new era of political participation.”

Douglas L. Bailey, president of FreedomChannel.com, another Web site dedicated to politics, proclaimed, “This may be the last television convention and the first Internet convention.” Pseudo.com’s 360-degree Web cams and video streaming were going to upstage traditional TV cameras. Roving Web reporters online 24-7 would render traditional scribes ob solete. The Republican Party credentialed dot-corn delegates. The Democratic Party promised a fully online convention, featuring live podium chats with convention speakers.

Like so much dot-corn drama, the reality fell far short of the hype. “It wasn’t live, it wasn’t interactive, and I wasn’t a chat,” says Netelection.org editor Steven Schneider of the Democrat’s podium chats.

Dot-com webcasts didn’t replace cable or network convention broadcasts. Quite the opposite occurred. Web traffic to political sites actually declined by 14 percent during the Republican convention, as people tuned into television to get their political information, according to PC Data Online, a firm that tracks Web traffic. “It was a lot better watching the conventions on television than a one-inch screen on your computer monitor,” says Wellesley College political scientist Marion Just. “There was a lot of hype about it and people felt disappointed afterwards that the Web didn’t provide the new technologies that people cared about.”

And the bleeding continued to the very end for many of the Internet-only companies. Forrester Research, a leading Internet research firm, found in an October survey that only 11 percent of likely voters planned to consult a political portal such as Votencom or Grassroots.com as a source of political information. Speakout.com, for example, pulled just 44,000 people to its site on election night, according to Media Metrix. The two major presidential candidate sites each pulled between 160,000 to 280,000 unique visitors a week in October. On November 6-8, the Gore and Bush sites pulled in even fewer visitors. NBC News, by comparison, drew more than 18 million viewers on election night.

THE RESULT IS that Internet Web outfits are either going bust or shifting focus from pure political news to political consulting. Pseudo.com died months ago. In November, Politics.com, the only publicly traded Internet portal, sold its domain name to the Democratic Congressional Caucus. Its stock had fallen from a high of $10.38 in September 1999 to just $.13. Privately held Votercom and Grassroots.com are shifting focus away from news to political consulting.

This doesn’t herald the end for Web-based news. Nor does it mean politicians and political hopefuls can ignore the medium, as the public is increasingly turning to the Web to absorb at least some political information. The Pew Research Center for People and the Press found in a post-election survey that 30 percent of voters say they got at least some of their political information from the Web in 2000, treble the proportion in 1996. But as in so many areas, the move onto the Web is proving evolutionary not revolutionary. Not surprisingly, the players who thrived in the off-line world are winning the Darwinian struggle in the digital ether.

So as the election neared and Americans started to turn their attention to politics, they pointed their browsers at the same targets at which they aim their remote controls. According to Nielson NetRatings, 4 million people logged onto cnn.com on election night, another 3.7 million went to msnbc.com, and 1.6 million to abcnews.go.com. They seem to go to the same sources for in-depth reporting at the virtual newsstand as they do at the newsstand on the corner. On Election Day, hundreds of thousands of Americans turned to usatoday.com, washingtonpost .com, and nytimes.com. (An exception is the mega-portal site Yahoo.com, whose daily news section had traffic that came in behind only cnn.com and msnbc.com.

AND, AS THE POSTELECTION DRAMA played out, millions of Americans continued to follow it online. In the week ending November 12, the last date for which reliable tracking data is available, traffic at these major sites became even heavier, with cnn.com up 158 percent and the newspaper sites increasing by more than a third. Even Voter.com finally attracted some heavy traffic nearing the 2 million mark for the week.

The bottom line: political information dot-toms are finding it as difficult as other dot-toms to secure the traffic and revenue to make it as commercial concerns. “They learned what everyone else in politics already knew,” says Marion Just. “It’s hard to bring people in.”  -ML

Michael W. Lynch is the Washington editor at Reason magazine and a frequent contributor to CE.

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