The last time a new medium transformed American politics was 1960. The medium was, of course, television, and the signal event was the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate, the first to be broadcast live to a national audience. Radio listeners polled afterward gave the victory to Nixon. But Kennedy won the debate--and arguably the election--because he came off better on television. Kennedy looked cooler, more confident, and more handsome. He also knew something Nixon didn't--how to project himself through the new technology. In office, JFK took further advantage of the medium, using television to shape the public perception of his administration. After press conferences, he would replay his films in private, critiquing the lighting and camera angles.
It is already a cliché that the 2000 election signals the advent of another new medium, the Internet. As is often the case with the Web, predictions of dominance come in two flavors: utopian and apocalyptic. Utopians think the Net has the power to undo the damage wrought upon American politics by television. In their view, it stands to increase the power of ideas and diminish the importance of 30-second attack ads. It will disenfranchise unelected elites and give democratic power back to individuals. It will reduce the power of money. Gloom-and-doomsters, on the other hand, assert that the Net will do just the opposite, reducing genuine participation, threatening personal privacy, and lending itself to new forms of manipulation by amoral operatives and moneyed interests.
My prediction: This election will be more important to the Net than the Net will be to the election. Just as 1960 conferred legitimacy on TV journalism, Campaign 2000 promises to put the Net on the political map. It's less of a given, though, that the Net will actually affect the campaign. In terms of the TV analogy, 2000 may be 1956 or 1948 rather than 1960. Television existed in those elections and was spreading rapidly into millions of homes. But for a variety of reasons, it wasn't yet a decisive or central factor.
So, how can we know how important the Web is this time around? Only by casting a skeptical eye on the ambitious claims being made on its behalf and evaluating them against reality. Slate and the Industry Standard have joined forces for a continuing real-time examination of the 2000 campaign as it happens on the Web. In this column, we'll follow the topic where it takes us. But to start out, here are some of the subjects "Net Election" is likely to consider and reconsider over the next 14 months.
One way those goofy candidate Web sites can quickly establish their value is by raising gobs of money. So far, they've helped a bit. According to its most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission, Bill Bradley's campaign so far has received $330,000 from its Web site. This is only about 3 percent of what Bradley has collected overall. But there are reasons for Bradley and his rivals to like Web money more than other kinds. One is that the cost of raising money on the Net is very low compared with sending out direct mail or throwing a gala. A Web site is basically an electronic collection plate, which consumes few of a candidate's resources. For this reason, Net-based political fund raising is destined to grow--and probably just as quickly as other forms of e-commerce.
Web fund raising may also point the way toward campaign finance reform. Last week, George W. Bush initiated a practice that will surely become the norm: declaring contributions immediately online, instead of waiting for quarterly FEC deadlines. You could do worse than the system of campaign finance that is evolving on the Web, where contributions limited to the less-than-influential amount of $1,000--approximately one-50,000th of what Bush has raised so far--are immediately disclosed. To be sure, there remains the problem of many times larger soft money donations. But thanks to the Web, it's at least easy to discover which special interests are supporting which candidates. The best disclosure site, FECInfo, puts at everyone's fingertips information that used to require trips to the FEC office in Washington and hours of poring over dim microfiches.
Another advantage of Web contributions is that they often come with a promise of volunteer time. The grass roots group MoveOn.org, which was formed to oppose impeaching President Clinton last year, quickly gathered pledges of $13 million and 500,000 signatures on a petition, just by pinging e-mail back and forth. What's more, 30,000 people pledged 750,000 hours of volunteer time to defeat pro-impeachment legislators in the 2000 election. You can't trust politician-haters, but if the volunteers live up to their promises, they stand to become a significant factor in the contest for control of the House.
Republicans targeted for defeat may harness the same techniques in self-defense. Rudy Giuliani's Senate campaign reports that he has already signed up 11,000 volunteers on the twin Web sites RudyYes.com and HillaryNo.com. Those with little inclination to hand out leaflets at rainy commuter stations at rush hour can become "e-volunteers." By using the Web in this way, a campaign can convert mass support into grass roots support. Steve Forbes' Internet guru Rick Segal tried to work the Iowa straw poll this way. He set up a national e-mail tree designed to get people to send their friends in Iowa to Ames as Forbes supporters. How great an effect it had is hard to say.