Candidates Hang Hopes on Electronic Hustings
By Terry M. Neal
Three years ago--an eternity in cybertime--presidential candidates used the Internet mostly as an afterthought for brochure-like biographies and occasional updates from the campaign trail.
"In the last campaign, the Web was not even a line item in the budget; it was a footnote in a line item in the budget," said Bill Dal Col, campaign manager for Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes. "This time it is its own section with its own line items."
Rapid advancement in technology has opened new worlds on the campaign trail. For instance, aides to several campaigns said they plan to use digital cameras to record events and download them onto their Web sites so viewers can follow them in almost real time. Although the technology existed to do that in 1996, refinements have reduced the costs to produce it and for consumers to access it.
The Internet has exploded into mainstream America with steady and astonishing growth, as millions of new users begin to regularly access it each year. The number of households with Internet access has more than doubled to 44 million since the last presidential election, according to Forrester Research Inc., a technology research firm. More than half a million households--about 18,000 every day--are coming online every month.
By the end of 2000, when voters are going to the polls, many analysts predict that half of all U.S. households will have access to the Internet--a massive virtual world that many candidates believe can translate into votes. The challenge for candidates is how to harness that potential.
The Internet will not replace traditional tools, such as television and radio, but will augment them in ways never before seen on such a broad scale. Candidates are planning, for instance, to promote their Web addresses in commercials. Once viewers are there, the candidate might ask them to submit questions for an online chat or for biographical data that will be used to build a database of supporters. When a candidate's opponent shows up in, say, Ames, Iowa, the candidate can send out e-mail alerting supporters in that area and urging them to organize an alternative event.
Some candidates, including Vice President Gore, have already participated in online chat sessions with voters. Forbes has simulcast two campaign events on his Web site. Experts who analyze politics on the Net say that those who don't use it efficiently will be at a disadvantage.
Doug Bailey, publisher of National Journal's Hotline, has monitored developments in campaigns' use of the Internet. "The technology that's out there is going to change the country; therefore, it's going to change our politics," he said.
Although the vast scope of the Internet is part of its appeal to politicians, it's also a part of its challenge. How do politicians entice millions of people with millions of choices to pay attention?
"It's still some years away as a tool for mass media," said GOP consultant Frank Luntz, who has researched Internet politics. "Here's the problem: Americans don't like politics. So when they get on the Web, politics is the last thing they want to read."
Although in interviews aides to several presidential candidates said the Internet would play a vital role in campaign strategy, such assertions partly reflect the desire to appear current in a world where the average sixth-grader tosses around techie terms such as "URL" and "open source code." Off the record, some raised doubts about whether it would be an effective way to reach the generally older voters who participate in primaries and caucuses.
"Your Web site may be cool with 24-year-old skaters or techies, but if it doesn't appeal to your average 54-year-old white guy in Iowa, what good is it going to do?" asked a top aide to one Republican candidate.
Such criticisms miss the point, some campaign strategists and Internet experts say. Consider this: In 1996, the difference between Patrick J. Buchanan's first-place finish and Robert J. Dole's second-place finish in the New Hampshire GOP primary was only about 2,000 votes. Some political strategists say it is now possible for a candidate with an efficient Web operation to influence or motivate a few thousand voters in a strategic state such as New Hampshire or Iowa.
Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura did just that last year in Minnesota, and now he is governor. Ventura had a pittance of financial resources and one paid staffer, but he and an amateur Web technician mobilized more than 3,000 voters for his final "72-hour drive to victory tour." The resulting rallies around the state generated media coverage and created a buzz that helped push him to the front of the pack.
"I think it's entirely possible that the Internet could make a two- or three-point difference in a presidential race, and two or three points is the world," said Phil Noble, president of the nonpartisan PoliticsOnline Web site.
Jay MacAniff, a spokesman for Aristotle, a California-based political software company, predicted that presidential candidates would spend as much as $20 million combined to maintain and market their sites.
Aristotle has collected public information about every registered voter in America and matched that information with subscriber information from Internet server companies. So candidates, for the first time, can restrict who sees their Internet ads to specific, targeted voters. For instance, a candidate could design ads that only Democrats over 30 who have voted in three of the past five elections in the 3rd Congressional District of Maryland would see.
"In terms of e-commerce and the Internet and politics, this is essentially the birth of the use of the Internet with campaigning," MacAniff said.
A significant question remains about how effective the Internet will be in helping candidates raise money. The Federal Elections Commission prohibits candidates from receiving matching dollars for money raised via credit cards, the only direct way to take money over the Internet. A few candidates are soliciting direct contributions online anyway. Others' Web sites ask for pledges to be followed by checks, which can be matched by the government. Former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, running for the Democratic nomination, has petitioned the FEC to change the rule.
About a half-dozen people who specialize in politics on the Internet said in recent interviews that Forbes and Gore are ahead of all others with their Web sites.
Forbes, who announced his candidacy on the Internet last month, has a program on his site called "e-precincts," a sort of pyramid scheme for grass-roots activists. His site establishes a point system to reward volunteers who recruit the most volunteers and fund-raisers. The site keeps a tally of point leaders--a tactic Rick Segal, a Web consultant to Forbes, says will create a sense of inclusiveness for voters who never have to leave their living rooms.
Forbes updates his site each day with a "story" written by his operatives in the form of real news wire dispatches. Among other things, Forbes has been using the stories to update supporters on his take of happenings in the Balkans.
"They're bypassing [the press]," said Mike Cornfield, an associate research professor at George Washington University who is directing a project to study politics online.
Forbes has also been aggressive using emerging marketing tools online, such as banner advertising on sites such as Yahoo. These strategies can be costly, but Forbes, who spent $37 million of his money on a failed 1996 primary bid, has plenty of it.
Gore's site has some similar features, but it also has one that is unique: The site--with a Spanish-language version--includes an "open source" feature that invites viewers to help him design and improve his site. It is a function that only real Web enthusiasts would think to access.
"This is a fantastic idea," said Marty Edlund, assistant vice president of Hockaday Donatelli Campaign Solutions, a GOP consulting firm that specializes in issue advocacy on the Internet. "A large part of this is symbolism. But it lures an important Gore constituency and burnishes his credentials as the high-tech candidate."
Other Web sites have drawn notice: Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) has a site that can be read in Spanish. Elizabeth Dole (R) allows viewers to create interactive "postcards" with the candidate's picture to forward to friends. Bradley's site gives viewers state-by-state voter registration directions. Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) asks viewers of his site to describe their heroes.
"We designed our site not just for the political junkie, but also for everyday working people so it would be of interest to non-political junkies as well," said Kasich spokesman Todd Harris.
Booting Up Their Campaigns
With Internet usage taking off among Americans, candidates are making it a significant part of the campaign trail.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company