The Internet and the 2002 elections.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 4 2002 12:31 PM

No, Really, This One's a Net Election

How to tell if the Internet mattered in 2002.

Political pundits proclaimed 1996, 1998, and 2000 as the first Internet elections, but there wasn't much to it. True, John McCain and Jesse Ventura used e-mail and the Web to mobilize supporters, but most candidates just propped up Web sites resembling online yard signs and went back to offline campaigning. Bob Dole may have gotten 2 million hits the day after mentioning his Web site during a 1996 debate, but its most interesting feature was an online crossword puzzle (4 Across: Name Dole's dog) that surely didn't swing many votes.

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But in this year's midterm elections, a broad swath of candidates has discovered that information technology can be enormously effective in organizing get-out-the-vote efforts, precisely targeting likely voters, and getting information quickly to core supporters. As a result, the 2002 election might be the one where the Internet proves its political potential.

Take Texas' Tony Sanchez, the Democratic candidate for governor. His volunteers have ditched their clipboards and instead port around Palm M105s. They interview voters, note their answers with styluses, and upload the data to campaign command central. Undecided voters receive a slew of phone calls and e-mails about the issues that matter most to them. Supporters will get automated messages on Election Day that announce their poll locations, offer van service to get them there, and beseech them to call and e-mail their friends.

The Palm data on every voter contacted by Sanchez's volunteers is made available through an intranet to campaign offices across the state. Campaign workers in Odessa can log on Tuesday and find up-to-date information on all the Sanchez supporters on the Odessa Jackalopes or all the undecideds in their neighbor's apartment complex. On Tuesday, the campaign's field workers will e-mail precinct turnout data to headquarters, so central command can decide in real time where to focus get-out-the-vote energy.

Candidates have done this sort of stuff for centuries. Sanchez is just doing it vastly better, faster, and more efficiently than Boss Tweed or Bill Clinton could have. As the campaign says, it's "grassroots politics on steroids."

But will it matter? Below are eight races, including Sanchez vs. Perry, where one candidate has integrated information technology more fully and more smartly than his or her opponent. Many of the candidates with the best technology aren't on the list—for example Bill Simon and Gray Davis in California—because they are running against each other and cancel each other out. Other interesting candidates aren't included because they are irrelevant—such as Tara Sue Grubb, a libertarian congressional candidate in South Carolina who publishes a personal blog called tarasue4u.

If technology makes a difference, and if the conventional wisdom hasn't adequately accounted for it, then each of the wired candidates should exceed expectations on Tuesday. To be sure, the Net won't make all the difference in these races. After all, the race with the biggest gap between the candidates' Internet strategy was between the technophile Paul Wellstone and Norm Coleman. And we know that forces beyond the Internet will decide that one.

Check on Wednesday to see how many of these eight predictions come true. If six or more do, let's designate 2002 the year of the Internet. If not, let's wait till next time.

1. Texas Governor: Tony Sanchez (D) vs. Rick Perry (R)
Sanchez isn't just uploading voter info. He has also used his Web site to spin reporters in real time during a debate and to help supporters figure out how to vote early. He has built small sites targeted to specific voting populations, a site devoted to refuting his opponent's attacks, and sites for constituent groups. He has even built a very funny video game.

Perry isn't a Luddite, and he has copied some of his opponent's moves. But Sanchez has the best Internet strategy of 2002, and it should give him a boost.