So, Was It a Net Election?

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Jan. 26 2001 3:00 AM

So, Was It a Net Election?

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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 New Economy in the tank, financial pundits have had a fine time taking the dot-com cheerleaders to task for their irrational exuberance. The same goes for political journalists writing about Net politics. The consensus is that the 2000 campaign was decided like any other—on television, on the ground, and with gobs and gobs of money. According to the publications ranging from the New York Review of Books to ZDNet, the evangelists who said the Web would revolutionize presidential politics were all wet.

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To which we respond, which evangelists? In the inaugural "Net Election" column for Slate, for instance, Jacob Weisberg argued that the Web still had an election cycle or two to go before it became a decisive force in presidential politics. That skepticism echoed through this feature during the campaign. And the numbers largely bore it out. Only 56 percent of congressional campaigns even had Web sites in 2000. According to one survey, only 35 percent of people got political news from the Internet.

Now it's the bears who may be getting carried away. In certain respects, the Web really did play a significant role in the election. It made the primaries more competitive and nearly resulted in a Gore victory, in a way I'll explain in a moment. Keeping in mind the more modest expectations we began with, this final installment of Net Election will examine where online politics succeeded and where it failed. What did the Web learn from the election, and what did the election learn from the Web?

What Worked
Fund Raising: Candidates still raised about 95 percent of their money offline, and 40 percent of campaign Web sites didn't even have a mechanism to accept contributions. Even so, for a week after the New Hampshire primary, John McCain proved that the Internet can be an effective fund-raising tool. Less than two days after McCain's upset victory, he had raked in more than $1 million in online contributions. A week after the primary, McCain had collected more than $2 million on the Net. Although he eventually lost to Bush in South Carolina, the Web harnessed McCain's New Hampshire momentum, which might otherwise have dissipated in an underfunded ground operation. Online fund-raising beats offline in terms of speed, ease, and cost. Next time around, count on it to be an even bigger deal.

High-Speed Information: Political observers often note that the news cycle keeps getting shorter. This time, thanks mainly to the Web, there was essentially no cycle. Candidates responded to criticisms before the criticisms were actually uttered; the dialogue was essentially constant. For people who want to follow the campaign at the speed it now occurs, the Web is a vastly better tool than 24-hour news, which is limited in the depth it can offer, or newspapers, which only come out once a day. Or did; as a result of this campaign, the Web sites of the better newspapers and magazines are becoming continuously updated information portals. Thanks to the Web, there was more fresh information about the campaign available at all hours. Much of this coverage may be superficial. But now you no longer have to sit in front of CNN waiting for a political update from the campaign trail.

Political Humor: Especially during the post-election election, when people were actually following politics closely, the Internet was teeming with presidential jokes. The "Sore-Loserman" slogan was born on the Web. And some of the stuff was actually funny: the parody butterfly ballots, the "Curious George" book, trumped up Nostradamus predictions, even the dancing Georges and Als. A recent study found that 54 percent of Net users trafficked in e-mail jokes about the election. Such humor may not have much policy content, but jokes actually convey a kind of information that for many people contributes to a kind of understanding.

Vote Trading: The idea was that if Nader voters in swing states traded votes over the Internet with Gore voters in uncontested states, progressives could secure everything they wanted: a Gore presidency and matching funds for the Green Party in 2004. Of course, Gore lost and Nader didn't even come close to the 5 percent threshold he needed to cross, so vote trading failed on its face. But with half a dozen peer-to-peer Web sites that got hundreds of thousands of hits, it turned into a major spontaneous movement, though it was curtailed by legal action against the sites. A few hundred more swaps in Florida and Gore would now be president. It's also worth noting that this minimovement was spawned by citizens, not political operatives. Nader Trader is what the Internet advocates are talking about when they say the Web can shift the center of political gravity to the voters.

What Didn't Work
Interactivity: The Web is supposed to be good at allowing people to communicate with each other. In the political world, interactivity has the potential to turn campaigns into bottom-up enterprises in which voters, not candidates, drive the agenda. Problem is, politicians don't want to give up their power, so they thwarted most serious attempts at interactivity. (They did initiate all sorts of token interaction, including bogus online polling and an online suggestion box for Democratic Party platform planks.) When a group called Web, White, and Blue hosted a syndicated cyberdebate in which candidates answered voter questions over the course of a month, the campaigns hardly participated, posting only spiffed-up press releases.

Multimedia: The conventions were supposed to be a coming out party for the political Internet. Sites like America Online and the now-defunct Pseudo.com were going to show the world what the Web could do: streaming video, 24 hours a day, with multiple camera feeds. Two big problems: 1) Nobody watches Webcasts because the technology has not advanced enough to make the experience pleasant; and 2) anybody who was enough of an expert or a junkie to demand that level of detail was probably already at the convention anyway. The multimedia extravaganza was a bust.

For-Profit Portals: Perhaps because they raised over $60 million in venture capital, the triumvirate of Grassroots.com, Speakout.com, and Voter.com became synonymous with online politics for a few months last summer. They hoped to make money by offering general political information, but the people didn't come, and all three lost money, fast. Now Grassroots and Voter are converting themselves into online consulting firms, and Speakout is developing opinion-polling software. Politics.com, another portal with a great domain name but no traffic, folded before Election Day.