The Best Campaign on the Web

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
June 7 2000 11:30 PM

The Best Campaign on the Web

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

The Internet makes politics faster, but does it make politics any different? Candidates use their Web sites to raise money, organize volunteers, inform voters, and distribute campaign materials more efficiently than ever before. But few candidates use the Net to do anything truly new. For the most part, campaign Web sites and e-mail are just digital versions of direct mail, telemarketing, and the fax machine.

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In Washington state, one candidate may be changing that. Maria Cantwell, who is running in Washington's Democratic primary for the right to challenge Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, had the résumé of a career politician until 1994. She served eight years in the state legislature and one term in Congress before being ousted in the '94 Republican sweep. But for the past five years, Cantwell has worked as a senior vice president at RealNetworks, the Internet multimedia company. (She is on leave while she campaigns.)

Because of her RealNetworks experience, Cantwell has garnered some national attention, mostly for her wealth. The Seattle Times estimates the value of her RealNetworks stock at $15 million—not Jon Corzine money, but not chump change, either. Cantwell has already given $1 million to her own campaign and reportedly is willing to kick in up to $4 million of her own money.

But Cantwell deserves attention for another reason. Her campaign's Internet presence is among the more innovative in the country, and not in the way you might expect from a RealNetworks executive. Noticeably absent from the Cantwell 2000 Web site is the use of streaming media, the technology that made RealNetworks famous and Cantwell rich. Instead, the campaign is innovating by using one of the Internet's earliest and least-ballyhooed technologies: the listserv.

A listserv like the Cantwell 2000 Discussion List represents a form of communication (and campaigning) unique to the Internet. It facilitates many-to-many communication, as opposed to the one-to-many model of communication represented by other mass media. Every message mailed by one member of the list goes to all members. An e-mail newsletter is controlled by the sender, who pumps out information, but a listserv is a community of voices.

Therefore, using a listserv involves a fairly large transfer of control away from a campaign. A listserv doesn't help a campaign to stay "on message." And it would be easy for the opposition to infiltrate a listserv and disrupt the campaign's message. That's why most campaigns use a newsletter, and not a listserv, to communicate with voters. (Cantwell uses both.) Campaigns want to control their message, control the media, and avoid surprises.

The Cantwell discussion list is moderated, but John Beezer, the campaign's Internet director, says he will filter out only messages that are mean-spirited, off-topic, or overly repetitive. "You're walking the line between censorship and open forum," Beezer says. "I think we have to take that approach."

But the Cantwell campaign is allowing critical voters to have their say. Take this message, which promotes Cantwell's Democratic primary opponent, Deborah Senn and includes the following comments:

If you look at Maria's website, particularly the voting record, it doesn't appear she … sponsored successful legislation to address issues. It just says she voted for party-line issues. Which is great … but I think we need someone to go after issues that are critical to the physical and financial well-being of all Washington's citizens, not just tow the line.

Why would the Cantwell campaign be willing to facilitate—even tacitly sponsor—the delivery of this kind of criticism into a voter's in-box?

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