Going Negative 

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
June 20 2000 3:00 AM

Going Negative 

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mailto:whiteben@washpost.com Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.  

Academics once lauded the Internet as an idyllic haven for issue-driven, information-saturated positive campaigning. But the proliferation of negative sites in the 2000 campaign suggests that attack politics has hit Web in a major way.

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"Certainly, negative and comparative campaigning is increasing in 2000 compared to 1998, both in absolute and percentage terms," said Steven M. Schneider, a research fellow studying online politics at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Absolute is obvious—more Internet campaigning, more negative Internet campaigning," Schneider said. "Percentage is more interesting. As a percentage of all Internet campaigning, we are finding that there is more negative content in 2000 than in 1998."

There is plenty of evidence to back up Schneider's findings in three key Senate races: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Washington state. All feature either attack Web sites or negative online campaign tactics.

First, Pennsylvania, where the Generation X group X-PAC recently launched dumpsantorum.com, a site dedicated to ridding the political world of Republican Sen. Rick Santorum. The site features a prominent picture of the freshman senator stuffed into a garbage can and includes exclusively negative information about his record and offers no policy alternatives.

The "Trash Talk" section provides a link to Santorum's Democratic opponent, Rep. Ron Klink, but the Klink link can't provide the positive part of the message either because the lightly funded campaign's Web site is still "coming soon."

To be fair, the anti-Santorum site has some altruistic, interactive functions. It helps visitors register to vote, send a letter to the editor, and e-mail their friends—though the form e-mail provided contains yet more slams on Santorum.

Expect more of these "citizen action" portals from 28-year-old X-PAC Executive Director—and lone staffer—Mike Panetta (no relation to former White House chief of staff Leon). All the sites will focus on candidates who favor various Social Security "privatization" plans, which X-PAC opposes. The next target will be Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe in Arizona's 5th District.

In Michigan, the online campaign has also turned decidedly nasty in the last week. It started with Libberaldebbie.com, an attack site sponsored by Republican Sen. Spence Abraham, among the most vulnerable Republicans in the country.

Liberaldebbie is chock-full of nasty whacks at candidate Debbie Stabenow, including a photo that morphs the Democrat's face into a particularly unflattering shot of an almost midgetlike Hillary Rodham Clinton. Another feature provides a calculator that estimates how much a Michigan voter would have paid for a tax increase that Stabenow proposed while running for governor in 1994.