Why the Net Can't Swing

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Sept. 20 2000 11:30 PM

Why the Net Can't Swing

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

Back in December, the Republican primary candidates met in a Manchester, N.H., TV studio for the first debate that included George W. Bush. They talked for 90 minutes, mainly about the Internet and high-technology issues. Steve Forbes criticized the Justice Department for its case against Microsoft and chastised Bush for not endorsing a permanent moratorium on taxing the Internet. Orrin Hatch endorsed the Microsoft case and the tax moratorium. Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes fretted about children gaining access to electronic pornography. John McCain came out even more strongly than his rivals for a permanent tax moratorium and advocated wiring schools and libraries to the Internet.

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Flash forward to September. The two presidential nominees are fighting about adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, educational standards, Social Security reform, and tax cuts. But there's virtually no argument about matters virtual. There's no discussion of the Internet tax moratorium, electronic privacy, the Microsoft trial, Internet pornography, the AOL-Time Warner merger, or the Napster case. Moreover, there has been essentially no argument on any of these issues since the nominees emerged six months ago. Gore brings up his plans to wire schools and his concerns about electronic privacy from time to time. But his comments on these topics seldom draw any response from his Republican opponent. If Bush mentions the Internet, it's inevitably in the context of mocking his opponent for claiming to have invented it.

Why are Internet issues absent from what has been called the first presidential campaign of the new economy? One factor is the flow of high-tech money to both parties. Republicans are willing to offend trial lawyers and Hollywood. Democrats are prepared to take a financial hit for antagonizing drug, oil, and insurance companies. But these days, neither party wants to cross the computer industry, which, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has already given more than $22 million in this election cycle, split fairly evenly between the two parties. Silicon Valley cash has created an artificial consensus on such issues as the Internet tax moratorium, which both candidates favor despite the lack of any rational justification.

But a more significant factor may be where the 2000 election is being fought. Crucial early primaries took place in Washington, New Hampshire, and California, where a significant proportion of the voting population has a stake in tech issues. The Progressive Policy Institute has compiled a state-by-state "New Economy Index," which gives a sense of how these states differ from others. As of just over a year ago, New Hampshire ranked first in the share of its workers in computer-related jobs, with 8.2 percent employed in the tech sector. New Hampshire came in fifth in online population, with 41 percent of its citizens having Internet access. As for California, its overall "New Economy" ranking was No. 2, putting it just behind Massachusetts.

The higher-tech states are not completely out of play. Bush and Gore have both been spending time in Washington and New Hampshire, which are considered to be up for grabs (though New Hampshire, with four electoral votes, is too small to worry much about). But the candidates have mainly been campaigning and spending their TV ad dollars in the so-called "battleground" states: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Florida. In these states, the "old economy" still predominates. The industrial states of the Midwest have fewer software and Internet startup companies, less venture capital money, and are less dependent on foreign trade. Their workers are more likely to belong to unions and less likely to change jobs frequently or trade stocks online. The Progressive Policy Institute ranks their "New Economy" status as follows: Pennsylvania 24, Florida 25, Ohio 33, Michigan 34, Missouri 35.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

What's true of the swing states is even truer of swing voters in the swing states. There is no exact consensus about who the crucial "undecided" voters are in this election. The Bush campaign appears to be targeting younger single voters, who may be skeptical about the long-term viability of Social Security. The Gore campaign seems to be trying to win over those who are married and closer to retirement. But various surveys show that the voters who still haven't decided at this stage of the campaign are disproportionately independents, disproportionately female, and disproportionately in the $30,000-50,000 income range.

These demographic categories all correlate to below-average concern about and involvement with the Internet. According to a recent survey conducted by Mark Penn for the Democratic Leadership Council, independents are more likely than either Democrats or Republicans to be pessimistic about the New Economy and what it means for them. Women making $30,000 a year have bigger things to worry about than the risk of having to pay sales tax when shopping online.

We've heard a lot this year about "wired workers" and "new economy" voters. According to Business Week, they make up 33 percent of the electorate. As a group, they're economically conservative and socially liberal. They're also under 50, college-educated, and upwardly mobile. They own stocks, surf the Web, and don't smoke. They could have been this year's soccer moms. Unfortunately for them, neither candidate thinks they'll be deciding the election.