Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.
After raising—and spending—huge amounts of venture capital, struggling through a shaky IPO (initial primary offering), and surviving the inevitable dot-pol shakedown, the George W. Bush campaign last week unveiled its new Web site, the killer app it hopes will choke off algore2000.com's air supply. Here's a review.
When you first log on to the new Bush site, a pop-up window featuring "this week's ACTION items" greets you. This is a step beyond the usual pitch for campaign funds that greets users at most campaign sites. "Donate" is still an option, but users are invited to get involved in other ways as well, such as by taking part in a "Nationwide Literature Drop Off." Here you can print out a piece of campaign literature (this week's is a poster advertising the site itself) and distribute it to friends and neighbors. Other options invite you to send a letter to the editor or to participate in a trivia contest (today's prize: a Bush cap!).
The site argues that the literature drop-off and "Send a Letter to Your Editor" options are "easy as 1, 2, 3," but they're actually fairly time- and labor-intensive (Step 2: "Write your own letter to the editor"). They ask you to move from the online world into the offline one—an unlikely proposition for the average user. More intriguing are the opportunities for online activism presented by the site. These provide quick and easy ways for supporters to spread the Bush message. Who needs yard signs when you can download Bush logos for your Web site, wallpaper for your desktop, or a screen saver for your monitor? You can participate in an online chat with a campaign official (today's was with campaign chairman Donald Evans), send e-mail to a friend, or send a Bush e-card.
If that isn't enough, the true Bush devotee can visit Bush's online store, which sells everything from Bush baby bibs to a Bush director's chair to Bush bottled water ("Prepare to experience a watershed moment in American history").
The site's audio and video offerings are extensive as well. The campaign has a broadcast.com radio show and "GwBTV," which contains an archive of Bush campaign commercials and speeches. The GwBTV viewer does more than simply show video on demand—it also provides a text summary of the ad, and it contains links to "Contribute" and "Volunteer," in case you're inspired by the content.
On this criterion, the site falls short. The Associated Press reported last week, for example, that the campaign has replaced the seven-and-a-half-page discourse on education policy on its old site with a new two-and-a-half-page summary, minus the dollar figures and critical details. (There is, however, a Bush FAQ with penetrating questions such as, "When is the election?") Ultimately, the Bush campaign is probably guessing that voters don't want to read policy papers on the Web. They want issue information, yes, but they want it in bite-size, easily digestible form.
In many ways, the Web site itself is the "issue" communicated. Last week, the Bush campaign released a TV ad devoted entirely to the revamped Web site. The campaign declared the ad to be a political first—the first campaign spot devoted specifically to driving traffic to a Web site rather than to communicating a message about the candidate. On the face of it, that's a reasonable claim. The ad is filled with shots of the Bush Web site, and the only message from Bush is the mundane assertion, "I'm running for president of the United States." The final shot of the ad features only the word "georgewbush.com" on a white background. (Click here to watch the ad at georgewbush.com.)
But the ad carries an unstated message, too: Bush himself as dot-com. No politician wants to be perceived as a politician, of course. That's why Bush poses as a Midland, Texas, oilman and not as the scion of a political dynasty—and it's why Gore poses as a Carthage, Tenn., farmhand and not as the scion of a political dynasty. With his "cyberad," Bush wants to do more than simply drive traffic to his site, impressive though it may be. He wants to portray himself as a technically savvy e-candidate, and he wants some of the optimism people associate with the Internet to rub off on him. To a large extent, the site's issue information doesn't matter as long as voters visit and enjoy it. In this case, the message is the medium.