Network: The E-campaign begins

If you want to be president, you'd better get a website. Andrew Marshall on how the Net is set to play a major part in the race for the White House
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The Independent Culture
On Wednesday morning, nestling in the e-mail boxes of thousands of people across America along with the latest sales information, junk mail and messages from friends, will have been two intriguing items. Intriguing not for what they contained, but for the addresses from which they came: and HQ@Forbes2000.COM.

The first, "Gore Mail - Wired In to the Gore Campaign", came from the man who is most likely to represent Democrats in next year's presidential elections, Vice-President Al Gore. The second, "Steve Forbes 2000 - He Wants You to Win!", comes from one of his possible opponents, the billionaire publisher and Republican. Both have made heavy and active use of the Internet and e-mail in what is likely to be the first campaign that is seriously fought on the Net.

But to get that mail, you had to have registered with the campaign already, either directly or through their websites. And that is the catch with the Internet and political campaigning. Because it is a technology that focuses on the individual and the choices that he or she makes, it is remarkably successful for delivering the right information in quantity to answer voters' questions, for instance. But unlike other media, it does not reach out to broadcast a message - yet.

The 1996 presidential election was the first in which the Internet mattered, but the technology had a low rate of market penetration. Last year's congressional elections saw some candidates using the Net more widely, but it was still relatively marginal. It is clear that next year's presidential elections, where candidates have to build a national base for voters and fundraisers, will be a test case.

Forbes made a point by announcing his candidacy during an Internet press conference. Gore made a bit of a fool of himself by claiming ownership of the Internet, but he did play a leading role in getting it under way. Both have active and well-designed sites. The most obvious influence of the Web on politics is the shift of conventional media towards Internet coverage. There is something about elections that lends themselves to the Net: a site can easily assemble biographies, election records, opinion polls, news and analysis. The Washington Post, the New York Times, and CNN all have election coverage up and running.

The Internet has also spawned plenty of sites for those particularly devoted to politics as a spectator sport. By far the best of the sites devoted to an individual candidate is Bushwatch, created to keep an eye on George W Bush, the governor of Texas. It carries all the latest news reports and incisive analysis of the candidate's campaign. Casting a wider net is Political Junkie, a site with the most astonishing variety of political resources imaginable. Election USA carries a very broad range of reporting on campaigns, results, polls and election history.

All of the political parties and candidates have created their own sites to project their own information and campaign details. Surveys of the way people use the Internet show that they want hard information, not propaganda. So most of the sites will have news releases, biographies, analysis and comparative sections looking at other candidates. Robert Arena ran the Republican candidate Robert Dole's website in 1996, and worked for the governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, in 1998. He explained the virtues of the website in very simple terms to the Washington Post: "We wanted to be our own news service," he said.

NetPoliticsGroup, a Washington-based consulting firm, points out that the demographics of the Web in the US are now pretty compelling. "Sixty- two million US adults - 30 per cent of the US population - use the Internet," the group says, up from 56 million in November of 1997. And Internet demographics are broadening to look more like America, as more women, older people and non-college graduates arrive online. It is also cheap, certainly compared with television.

But how do you turn the technology into an active campaign tool? "The Internet combines the content capacity of print, the one-to-one reach of mail and phones, and the multimedia capabilities of television and radio," wrote Tom Hockaday and Martin Edlund, political consultants, in Campaigns and Elections magazine. "But the Internet is a mostly passive medium. For voters to reach your campaign website, they must plug your address into their browser or link to your site from another page."

One obvious way to bring in the voters would be through the equivalent of direct mail, a technique that works for politicians when it involves letters dropping on the doormat. But junk e-mail has a bad name, causes anger and has been filtered out by many of the newer e-mail programs.

The first thing that everyone has done is to make sure that if voters go looking, then they will find what the candidate wants them to find. There was hot competition last year for URLs linked to key politicians, as names were snapped up by those who sniffed a business opportunity. Many were bought up by the candidates later. Try and you will now be taken straight to George W Bush's official site.

The second thing that most of the leading candidates have done is to turn their sites into more than just information machines. Most now have regular e-mail updates, often tailored to specific regions or cities. To register for those updates, of course, you must provide quite a bit of information: addresses, telephone numbers etc. Some will make a pitch for funding at the same time.

The next step is to start harnessing the potential of advertising for the candidates. One way to bring in the voters is to put ads on Yahoo!, AOL or other services, targeted at particular areas of the country. So far, most of the activity is speculative: the low costs enable candidates to play around. But it's worth remembering that it was only with the 1960 televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon that television was really taken seriously as a campaigning tool. The 2000 election may not provide anything quite so convincing as that, but it will show what democracy can do with a young technology.

Candidates' sites

Al Gore:

Bill Bradley:

George W Bush:

John McCain:

Steve Forbes:

Pat Buchanan:

Elizabeth Dole:

Election sites


Political Junkie:

Election USA: www.geocities. com/Capitol Hill/6228