The Web Era Isn't as New as You Think

By Michael Cornfield and Lee Rainie
Sunday, November 5, 2006

When computers and the Internet first asserted themselves in Americans' imaginations in the early 1990s, some foresaw a golden era of politics. As citizens gained more access to information and as their voices more easily projected into the political discourse via bulletin boards, Web sites and Internet mailing lists, candidates would have more reason to deliberate directly with voters. Campaigns would become cheaper and more honest, while the power of lobbyists, consultants and other middlemen would fade.

Recently, as we've gained more experience with our technological toys, a fearful new thread has emerged: Forget the golden era. Through partisan blogs, political Web sites and customized news, the Internet only hardens our views, polarizes our politics.

So, is the Internet the lever for direct democracy? Or is it a wedge for political polarization? Either conclusion may prove too simple. To understand how technology may reshape politics in the years ahead, consider what we've learned from the initial decade of online campaigning, and how our various fears and hopes have fared:

The Internet has transformed political fundraising, advertising and mobilization.

Not so much. However you measure it, online fundraising has indeed increased substantially over the past eight years. The high-water mark, sure to be topped in 2008, is the reported $80 million in Internet donations that Sen. John Kerry raised for his 2004 presidential bid. This year, the liberal group has raised more than $20 million, most of it online, and total online fundraising could reach $100 million. That's less than one-20th of total campaign fundraising this election cycle, which the Center for Responsive Politics puts at $2.6 billion.

Furthermore, the bulk of the political cash raised online is still being spent on tried-and-true outreach efforts such as television advertising, direct mail and telephone calls. In other words, 21st-century fundraising is paying for the same old-fashioned communications mechanisms that have dominated U.S. politics since the 1960s.

Estimates by the research firm PQ Media indicate that online campaign advertising increased to $40 million this year, compared with $29 million during the 2004 election cycle. By contrast, spending on television spots alone may have hit $2 billion this year, said Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Meanwhile, e-mail is not close to challenging direct mail and phone calls as ways to reach voters: A Pew Research Center survey last month found that 38 percent of registered voters had received phone calls about the midterm campaigns, while only 15 percent had received e-mail.

In 2004, political scientists J. Quin Monson and D. Sunshine Hillygus tracked 1,606 voters during the last three weeks of the campaign for Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. Less than 4 percent of the sample reported receiving a political e-mail message. All told, they received 2,466 unique pieces of direct mail, 9,627 phone calls and 399 personal visits -- but only 254 unique campaign e-mail messages.

The Internet "Balkanizes" politics.

Yes, on issues such as national security and the economy, voters' views have grown more partisan over the past generation -- but that began long before PCs and Internet access became staples of middle-class life.

Internet use may reinforce that trend. Surveys show that the Internet helps people seek out others who share their beliefs. And 30 percent of Internet users customize their daily news and analysis, sometimes relying on partisan blogs or preferred sites that can deliver tailor-made and self-reinforcing news and opinions to their screens.

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