Reach Out and Lobby Someone

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
May 23 2000 3:00 AM

Reach Out and Lobby Someone

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.  

One of the more clever political messages on the Web doesn't sound much like a political message at first. It comes from callyourgrandma.com, a friendly new site offering a free 10-minute calling card to do exactly what its URL suggests. Why? "Prescription drugs and Medicare reform are hot topics in Congress," the site says, "and your grandma needs to know what's at stake!"

The site is sponsored by Third Millennium, a nonprofit group that focuses on Social Security and Medicare reform, and  Citizens for Better Medicare, the same organization that was responsible for a national series of TV ads featuring "Flo," the bowling senior who cares about the cost of federal health benefits.

Both sponsors oppose plans in Congress and in President Clinton's budget that would provide subsidized prescription drug coverage for the Medicare program's 39 million recipients. callyourgrandma.com has its own prescription: "Seniors need the peace of mind that comes from good private prescription drug coverage—not a wildly expensive one-size-fits-all government program that puts bureaucrats in charge of their medicines."

Third Millennium and Citizens for Better Medicare are counting on young Web users to help spread the word for them. Anyone who registers his or her name, street address, and e-mail address with the site gets a free long-distance phone card.

Third Millennium's Richard Thau said callyourgrandma.com will try to connect young people with seniors by finding "gentle, fun ways of bringing them into the discussion." The site is also a tool for building politically valuable lists of concerned clickers. Its privacy policy says the sponsors will not share, sell, or lease contact information with other organizations, but the names and e-mail addresses will come in handy when it comes time to "contact you about future issues."

Thau said the sponsors have bought "several thousand" phone cards and are ready to buy more if the campaign is successful—although they'll also keep an eye out for repeat visitors scamming for multiple phone cards. "We'll be monitoring the database," Thau said.

On Campaign Sites, It's English First

Hispanic Americans have the potential to be an important block of swing voters in the 2000 elections. Both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have aired Spanish-language TV ads and have Spanish-language portions of their Web sites. Bush's site even includes a page dedicated to his favorite Spanish sayings, such as, "I do not drink (alcohol), I only take advice, especially from my mom." (Yo no tomo alcohol … solo tomo consejos, y en especial de mi Mamá.)

But the Web does not appear to be a major outreach tool for Latino voters in this year's House, Senate, and gubernatorial races, even in communities where their votes count most.

None of the candidates in the 10 congressional districts with the highest percentage of Hispanic residents has Spanish sections on his or her campaign site. One possible reason: None of those contests are even close to being competitive, according to Congressional Quarterly's running district-by-district analysis of the campaign.

In the year's most-watched Senate race in New York, la primera dama Hillary Rodham Clinton has Spanish pages on her campaign Web site. But for most candidates in this year's hot races for House, Senate, and governor, including former Clinton foe  Rudolph W. Giuliani and new GOP candidate  Rick Lazio, the official online language of Campaign 2000 is English. New Jersey Democratic Senate candidate Jon Corzine  and Florida independent Senate candidate Willie Logan are possibly the only two candidates running in Congressional Quarterly's 32 other most-competitive races that have Spanish on their sites. Corzine also offers a version of his site in Portugese, while Logan has a Creole page.

The Web may not be the best way to reach Latino voters. According to a study done this year by the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, which has been tracking the presidential candidates' online outreach to the Latino community, three-fifths of Hispanic Web users would rather read English online.

Many Latinos also vote in precincts that are on the other side of the digital divide. While Latinos make up more than 11 percent of the U.S. population, they account for only 4 percent of U.S. Web users.

May 23 Primary Preview

In a number of races on the May 23 primary ballots in Arkansas, Idaho, and Kentucky, congressional candidates still aren't talking online in any language.

None of the incumbents running in Arkansas faces a serious challenge this week or this fall, and none of them has a campaign Web site either. In Idaho, where GOP primary voters will select the likely successor to retiring Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, only half of the eight Republican candidates have Web sites.

In Kentucky, one of the most interesting races of the year has produced two of the campaign's duller Web sites. Sixth District Democrat Scotty Baesler is seeking to take back his former seat in Congress from GOP freshman Ernie Fletcher. Neither candidate faces serious primary challenges this week, which means both have time to develop something to say to voters online.

The incumbent in Kentucky's Third District, by contrast, is using the Web not just to get her message out, unfiltered by the press, but to "correct the half-truths, distortions, and misinformation" in the local media. Republican Rep. Anne Northrup has dedicated a page of her site to telling the "other side of the story" to readers of the Louisville Courier-Journal. The second-term congresswoman appears to have her back up over editorials that she says misstate her positions on federal ergonomics rules and gun control. Northrup faces no Republican challenger, but three Democrats are vying in the primary. 

Ryan Thornburg is a senior producer for washingtonpost.com's "OnPolitics." He can be reached by e-mail at ryan.thornburg@washingtonpost.com. This article is reprinted from the washingtonpost.com's "OnPolitics."