Down to the Wired

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Oct. 28 2000 12:00 AM

Down to the Wired

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

With the debates over, the Internet remains one of the few places where undecided voters can delve into the issues and cut through the feverish campaign rhetoric that's sure to dominate the final days before Nov. 7. The AlGore2000 Web site and the GeorgeW. Bush  Web site have seen their traffic counts double in recent weeks.

For the candidates, the rush online means that the Net and e-mail have become increasingly important ways to capture votes in the nearly two-dozen swing states. "You have time to get more than a sound bite out there" on the Internet, says Tom Yeatts, a partner with  VirtualSprockets, the firm in Poolesville, Md., that worked on Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign. "You can also respond to attacks in a matter of hours."

Finally, the candidates have taken a page from the McCain primary "playbook," creating online phone banks on their Web sites similar to those employed by McCain before the New Hampshire primary. Such phone banks allow supporters to download voter phone numbers from the Web sites, which they can then call from their homes in order to encourage turnout. They also allow supporters to record on the Web site the voting plans of the people they have called.

"It pinpoints the areas where you have likely voters," explains Michael Cornfield, a professor of political management at the  Democracy Online Project. Based on data provided by the phone bank, campaigns can better target their efforts on Election Day, urging voters in areas determined to be crucial to actually show up at the ballot box. The phone bank also can help sway undecided voters.

Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush's campaign site is using a Web-enabled software system to conduct volunteer phone calls around the entire country. The system walks the caller through a scripted call and tracks the call's outcome online in real time.

Democratic Vice President Al Gore is using e-mail to coordinate phone banking from volunteers' homes rather than posting numbers on the Net, which the campaign believes raises privacy concerns and opens up the possibility of competition taking those numbers.

Given those pitfalls, both campaigns have ramped up efforts to fire off targeted e-mail messages that urge supporters to forward their e-mail to friends and link to sites where flyers can be downloaded for mass distribution. The  Republican National Committee, for instance, e-mailed Michigan supporters to tell them George W. Bush was heading to their battleground state. "Here is your chance to meet him!" the exclamation point-laden e-mail informs.

However, Bush's Michigan page says nothing of the upcoming visit. The calendar section lamely reads, "Check back for updated events." A Detroit News editorial is the only obvious difference between the Michigan state page and the other state pages on Bush's site.

Tucker Eskew, a national spokesman for the Bush campaign, says each state generates its own content. The result of this decentralization is that the Bush campaign would be better off if Michigan voters visited the state's Republican Web site, which is more focused on the interests of Michigan Republicans, rather than the supposedly customized Michigan Bush page. The Michigan Republican site offers a Web cast of former Chrysler Chief Lee Iacocca saying, "Al Gore may see the car as our enemy, but in Michigan, it's our jobs."

Yeatts calls the lack of variety among state pages on both the Bush and Gore sites a "glaring weakness," noting that giving each state true ownership of its pages creates vast potential to shore up supporters that currently isn't being realized.

The AlGore2000 site does seem more locally customized than Bush's, however. The page for Minnesota, another swing state, informs visitors right away of Gore's upcoming visit to Minneapolis, lists 13 places to get tickets for the event, and includes an endorsement from the Star Tribune that visitors to the site can e-mail to friends.

But the Gore campaign has not yet fully refined its Web operation: The site duplicates the information about Gore's visit, including the long list of ticket locations, further down the same page.

As the election comes down to the wire and candidates focus more of their efforts on getting out the vote, the customized e-mail messages are probably more valuable than the Web sites in organizing campaign supporters, Cornfield says.

"There's simultaneously a need for fresh information and a need to get information. E-mail is tailor-made for that," he says. And e-mail also can easily target such information, which is more important than ever as the swing states only seem to grow in number. After all, Cornfield notes, "this is not one race, but 51 simultaneous races."

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