Taking Spin Alley to the Web

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Oct. 9 2000 11:30 PM

Taking Spin Alley to 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. 

So who won the e-buttal battle during last week's debates? Using volume and timeliness of material as the criteria, George W. Bush's campaign dominated the presidential affair Tuesday night. But the Gore team recovered in Thursday's vice-presidential debate and gets credit for the only real innovation with its new InstantMessageNet service.

On Tuesday evening, the Bush team threw 32 rapid responses up on its specially created Debatefacts.com site, beginning at 9:01 p.m. ET with newspaper quotes debunking Al Gore's claim that he never questioned whether Bush had the experience to be president.

The hits kept coming throughout the night, with the Bush Web site far outpacing the candidate in terms of detailed responses to Gore's attacks.

For example, when Gore trotted out his claim that under the current administration the country has gone from "triple-dip" recession to a "tripling of the stock market," Bush offered no response, instead referring to a GOP press release claiming Gore's spending plans would bust the budget. Debatefacts.com, however, took direct issue with Gore's triple-dip claim, citing a New York Times editorial and a report from the administration's own Office of Management and Budget contending that the current recovery began in the spring of 1991.

The Gore Web team, meanwhile, had a rough time of it on Tuesday, battling technical hiccups throughout the night to cough out just nine "Reality Checks," which it posted on its main Web site  and e-mailed to reporters.

It was clear early in the evening that Nashville was in trouble. Several of the "In Flight Responses," as the e-mail versions of the rapid responses were called, actually consisted of recycled bits of a lengthier pre-buttal document e-mailed earlier in the evening. The campaign didn't even bother to delete the "Bush will say" lines to at least give the e-mails the feel of real-time responses.

To be fair, Gore officials said prior to the debate that they intended to focus more on their InstantMessageNet service as a way to influence online opinion during the debate. And their rapid response performance did improve during Thursday's vice-presidential showdown, though what at first appeared to be a deluge at second glance turned out to be duplicate copies of many e-mails.

After giving a pass to the Gore instant message network during Tuesday's debate, I signed up for it on Thursday. Moments after I signed on with my new Gore-Lieberman "handle," "Gore team" announced they were online with me.

So I asked what I should do. I quickly began to receive a stream of URLs for all the rapid responses the campaign had posted on its Web site. "Gore team" told me to e-mail the URLs to 10 friends, preferably undecideds. At this point I wasn't sure whether there was a human on the other end of these messages or just a clever piece of software.

I offered a compliment: "Lieberman seems very relaxed and confident" and asked a question: "Are there are any chat rooms I should be monitoring to influence the chatter about the debate?"

Nothing for a few moments. Then "Gore team" told me that "Lieberman is doing great" and directed me to a lively chat room on CNN as well as a couple of message boards on AOL. Clearly there was a human being, a real live campaign staffer, on the other end of the line. It was cool.

I went to the CNN chat room to see if any of the Gore talking points were showing up to counter GOP-leaning commentary. None were. After reading the reactions for a while, I began to realize that I had stopped paying attention to Lieberman and Cheney, though all the other chat-room participants seemed able to absorb the debate while simultaneously posting thoughtful comments on it.

For example, at 9:44 p.m. EST, "R.A. Catman" had this to say: "No question, the format and the personalities that are represented in the vice presidential debate are superior. I agree with the pundit who said this morning that the presidential debate wasn't so much a debate as it was a mutual news conference. I think Lieberman and Cheney are actually speaking to each other and are probably viewed as more interesting and informative than the standard bearers."

Other comments ran along similar lines, praising the No. 2's and pining for new constitutional authority to flip the tickets. In terms of overall presentation, Cheney appeared to be getting higher marks from most chatters.

Said "JuliAnn Juras": "Secretary Cheney is absolutely brilliant tonight. So well versed, experienced, and has the confidence that only having done the job will bring. Joe looks like a man who has been confined to the Senate, while Dick looks like a man who has run the world. No comparison in tenure here. Although, if I had a choice, I'd rather either of these VP candidates be the presidential candidate. These two are the brains of the four men."

After a long period of radio silence "Gore team" asked whether I had posted their material on CNN. I said I hadn't and admitted I was a reporter urged to check out the InstantMessageNet by Gore Internet Director Ben Green. I expected an irritated response for my deception but did not get one. Instead "Gore team" summoned Ben Green to chat with me online.

How many Gore supporters were logged in tonight while watching the debate? Approximately 5,000, Green replied. And how many staffers were fielding queries and directing people to the proper chat rooms? Six.

While unquestionably cool, it was hard to tell if the InstantMessageNet was having much impact. Participants had clearly not taken over and dominated the CNN chat room I visited and online insta-polls following the debate indicated a clear Cheney win.

But who knows? If the alleged 5,000 participants all e-mailed every rapid response to all of their undecided friends and neighbors, perhaps it could make a difference. Certainly more so than would 100 rapid responses posted on a Web site that the politically disengaged undecided voter will most likely never see.

Ben White writes about online politics for the Washington Post. He can be reached by e-mail at whiteben@washpost.com. This article is reprinted from the washingtonpost.com's "OnPolitics."