It's the Net, Stupid!
The Internet is changing the way Americans communicate.
But on the campaign trail, it's still business as usual.
By Kim Alexander, for Wired Magazine
Published November, 1998
"How many votes do I get because I maintain an updated Web site?" Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) asks during a sparsely attended photo op in San Francisco's South of Market district. "I can't tell you."
The online release of Kenneth Starr's report may have been a milestone for the Net, but on the campaign trail, Boxer's answer typifies the uncertainty of many politicians who are poking around on the Internet in search of a viable online constituency. For years, hopeful reformers have touted the Net's potential to reconnect voters alienated by the twisted pageantry of the electoral process. But reality hasn't kept pace with the hype, leaving tech-savvy pols - like Boxer and Representative Rick White (R-Washington) - wondering what kind of return, if any, they'll get for their online efforts during this season's tough reelection contests.
For the most part, political crusaders have yet to use the Internet for anything more than static brochureware. A nationwide survey of federal, state, and local campaigns conducted this summer by Campaigns and Elections magazine found that 63 percent have a Web site, with another 20 percent expected to have one soon. But the survey also found that over 80 percent planned to spend less than US $2,000 to build and maintain their Web sites. "In '96, it was, 'Do we have a Web site?'" says Shabbir Safdar, cofounder of Mindshare Internet Campaigns. "Now it's, 'We have a Web site. What do we do with it?'"
More than anything else, the fact that contemporary barnstormers care more about raising money for big media buys than building grassroots support may explain why the industry has been so slow to tap the Net's potential. According to a recent survey conducted by Bruce Bimber at UC Santa Barbara, 7 percent of Americans use the Net to actively engage in the political process - up from 3 percent in 1996. But political consultants, accustomed to reaching a passive electorate through direct mail, TV, and radio spots, have mostly ignored the Internet's growing audience of highly motivated voters.
Whether it's direct mail or telemarketing strategies, the vote-getting industry has always been a latecomer to new communications tools. "Campaigns are ad hoc organizations, generally run with scarce resources and limited time," explains Ron Faucheaux, editor in chief of Campaigns and Elections. "They are very much prone to crisis management." Dan Schnur, a California political consultant who has also served as a Republican liaison for TechNet, points out, "It took 20 years before television really changed the way campaigns were run."
Still some consultants are beginning to catch up with the times. The biggest innovation this year has been the use of email to mobilize the faithful. "Politicians may not know how to manage an email list," says Mindshare's Safdar, "but more are beginning to see they need to hire someone who does. They understand cheap, fast, useful."
Meanwhile, advocacy groups, from the liberal ACLU to the conservative Family Research Council, are using the Net to effectively galvanize supporters. And a few campaigns have integrated the net into their overall strategy. In gubernatorial races last year, Christie Whitman of New Jersey appealed to voters by heavily promoting her URL in the closing days of a tight contest, and Jim Gilmore of Virginia recruited 300 volunteers through his site and built an email list of supporters that helped with crowd building and get-out-the-vote efforts.
It's certainly possible that the Internet will steer electoral politics toward a more meaningful, volunteer-oriented style of electioneering. But if recent history is any indication, the chances are also good that the Net will become just another device in the consultant's arsenal of tools for selling "product" to voters. Either way, those looking for a departure from the status quo may end up waiting for a long time. Rates of technological change may now be described in Internet years, but changes in politics are still better measured in generations.
Kim Alexander (email@example.com) is president of the California Voter Foundation, which uses new technologies to educate voters at www.calvoter.org.