Nationwide, Candidates Spin the Web
By John P. Martin
Monday, Aug. 3, 1998
Phil Noble predicts that before 1998 is over, some unsuspecting, well-entrenched elected official probably from a university town or high-tech region will be toppled from office by a young, under-funded challenger using the unlikeliest of political slingshots.
When that happens, says Noble, a Democratic consultant who has lectured about politics and the World Wide Web, online campaigns will finally establish themselves as indispensable electoral tools.
Two years after a presidential election first showcased the Internetís political potential, campaigns at all levels are moving online to promote their candidacies, organize supporters, research the opposition, even raise funds. In California, four-fifths of the 90 statewide candidates in last monthís primary launched Web sites as part of their campaign. Most every serious statewide campaign now includes an online presence, if even a page with contact numbers. Just in case.
"If nothing else, itís going to be one of those things that if you donít have a Web site, people are going to wonder ĎWhy not?í" said Glenn McCalley, an Internet consultant in Towson, Md., who built a site for Maryland Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen Sauerbrey.
But no one can confidently crow that the Web has swayed an election or delivered a single vote. And thereís much debate about when and how the era of online campaigning will truly arrive.
"I thought that people would get it, particularly the campaign consultants would be faster to recognize the potential of this medium," said Kim Alexander, the president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan voter advocacy group. "But they havenít."
To see the range of strategies, scan a few of the nationís gubernatorial Web campaigns. Most have the same staples: contact information, press releases, speeches, photos and vehicles to volunteer, donate or e-mail the candidate. From there, the sites diverge wildly.
In Minnesota, Democrat Ted Mondale published his 80-page book online. Georgia Democrat Roy Barnes posted his commercials as well as a "Campaign cam" focused on his headquarters. Californian GOP hopeful Dan Lungren includes a link to his favorite burger chain. His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, posted a gallery of political cartoons about himself. Pennsylvania Republican incumbent Tom Ridge plans online chats with supporters. Florida GOP candidate Jeb Bush sells "Jebwear" from golf-shirts to mousepads emblazoned with campaign slogans over the Internet.
One widely noticed election site belonged to New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman (R). The site, www.christie97.org, included full-length commercials, downloadable posters and buttons, and, in the last two weeks of the campaign, a daily account of her statewide campaign bus tour all in Spanish or English. Whitman printed her Web address on every advertisement and handout; she pitched it during an interview with Howard Stern.
Whitman won re-election by 27,000 votes, or slightly more than 1 percent, over Democrat Jim McGreevey. His Web site, reportedly sparse by comparison to Whitman's, is no longer accessible.
Tom Wilson, Whitman's campaign manager, said her site cost between $20,000 and $25,000 to launch and maintain out of a budget that neared $10 million. He was a Web skeptic before the campaign.
"Can I say for sure that there was a vote that came out of it?" he said. "No, but I canít say that about anything else either."
Wilson believes his early cynicism is typical among campaign handlers. "We know we have a very small, finite budget and weíre cheap to the extreme," he said.
Their reluctance comes despite studies suggesting nearly a third of U.S. adults uses the Internet and a survey last fall by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology that found 82 percent of Web users are registered to vote and 55 percent voted in the most recent national election.
Still, no one has specifically gauged who is visiting campaign Web sites and how effective they might be in winning elections.
Michael Cornfield, a professor of political management at George Washington University, believes most visitors to an online campaign are courting candidates.
"The Web site is going to be used to close deals," said Cornfield, who hopes to launch a study of such sites this year. "Anybody who is going to the Web site is going because they have a purpose in mind and they want more education."
The Clinton and Dole presidential campaigns each spent about $100,000 on their Web sites, dabbled in audio and video feeds, registered thousands of volunteers and accepted thousands of dollars in donations online.
Lynn Reed managed the Clinton-Gore Web site and now heads NetPoliticsGroup, an Internet consulting firm. She expected candidates would stampede to the Web this election cycle. They havenít. She blamed what she said is cynicism inherent in politics.
"By and large, campaigns are going to put their money and their resources into something that is proven to work," Reed said.
Tom Fiedler, political editor and columnist at the Miami Herald, said he regularly reviews campaign Web sites, sometimes to see whatís not there.
Corey Tilley, press secretary for GOP rival Jeb Bush, heard the same rumors and had staffers print everything posted on Dantlzerís site before it went down. In particular, they wanted copies of Dantzlerís attacks against MacKay, words that could sting the Democrats in a tight race.
"There were some we didnít have," Tilley said.
In Pennsylvania, the Ridge camp tries to limit such opposition research by requiring media members to register before they can access information such as the governorís campaign schedule. But only two dozen people have - a response so disappointing to campaign press secretary Lynn Lawson that she ventured into the capitolís press offices to ask why.
"Several of them told me that they still want the piece of paper in front of them," Lawson said.
Lawson said she devoted 80 percent of her time for six weeks to develop and launch the site. Through June, the campaign had spent more than $20,000 on its online campaign. All this in a race where the GOP incumbent had a 50-1 spending lead after the May primary and remains the heavy favorite to beat his Democratic opponent, Ivan Itkin.
"Five months is a lifetime in politics," Lawson said. "Anything can happen."
Thatís the premise behind the prediction of Noble, the Democratic consultant. Some of his counterparts say they are waiting for the Web equivalent of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon televised debate often credited with helping Kennedy win the presidency to establish the new mediumís political power. But Noble thinks the defining race will be one that no one, including the incumbent, notices until the results are in.
Thatís encouraging for candidates like Nevada State Sen. Joe Neal, a Democratic candidate for governor. To win, Neal must first top longtime Las Vegas mayor Jan Jones in the Sept. 1 primary, then beat the Republican candidate, expected to be businessman Kenny Guinn.
Problem is, Jones and Guinn are millionaires with solid party backing, while Neal has struggled to raise money. A poll last month by one of the cityís newspapers gave Jones a 27-point lead over Neal and showed Guinn soundly beating either.
Neal is counting on the Internet to level the field. He launched his site in January. (Jones has yet to unveil hers, though a campaign staffer said one is planned.)
Nealís campaign manager, Andrew Barbano, calls www.neal98.org a "control center for our guerilla war." Barbano said he requires all campaign precinct captains to have Web and email access.
"As it stands now, the Neal headquarters is a personal computer on my desk," Barbano said. "And I hope we never open a headquarters. I personally donít see the need for one."
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