When Steve Forbes launched his second bid for the White House over the Internet on Mar. 16, grizzled pols snickered that the publishing magnate's gambit was nothing but high-tech gimmickry. Wait until they see what's next. Forbes plans to use the Net to raise funds, recruit volunteers, run ads on popular Web sites, and hold online chats. "We're not just posting a Web page, we're launching a huge communications network for current and prospective Forbes supporters," declares Rick Segal, Forbes' Web master.
Welcome to the new world of cyberpolitics. Little more than an electronic billboard for politicians just a few years ago, the Net is emerging as a mainstream, multipurpose political tool. And not so far in the future, it could coax millions more Americans into the political process by making it easier to vote. Already, legislatures in California, Florida, Minnesota, and Washington are exploring online voting. "It will happen. It's just a question of when," says Steven Clift, chairman of Minnesota E-Democracy, a nonpartisan group that promotes voter awareness.
"WORD OF MOUSE." Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura's stunning upset last year was a watershed for Internet politics. Using "word-of-mouse" grassroots appeals from his Web site, Ventura got young, independent voters to organize a huge turnout at the polls.
Now, the 2000 Presidential candidates want to duplicate that success. Democratic activist Wade Randlett argues that adroit use of the Net could unleash a new cadre of campaign workers: busy middle-income folks who don't have time to man a phone bank. "The Internet makes possible a lot of grassroots activism that wouldn't happen otherwise," says Randlett. Adds Carleton College political scientist Steven E. Schier: The Net "is a marvelous tool for building networks and mobilizing supporters." On the Forbes Web site, for example, volunteers are encouraged to become "e-Precinct" recruiters who compete with other recruiters.
For the most part, though, prospective candidates are still trying to figure out what will work and what won't. With one click, viewers can get George W. Bush's Web site in Spanish. Elizabeth Dole supporters can download campaign banners to slap on their own sites. And several Presidential hopefuls offer the option of making campaign contributions online--just punch in your credit-card number.
Curiously, Vice-President Al Gore, who caused a stir when he claimed credit for inventing the Net, is late to the Web. Staffers expect his page to be up the week of Mar. 29. And they predict that it will trump all others. One planned feature: a daily "Ask Al" query that the Veep will answer personally.
As a direct channel to voters, the Net lets pols bypass the media and deliver more of a message. "The average time an individual spends on a candidate or issue Web site is five to seven minutes, compared with 30 seconds on a TV ad," says Jonah Seiger, co-founder of Mindshare Internet Campaigns, a Washington consulting firm that helps special-interest groups use the Net.
Still, with a current U.S. audience of around 60 million, the online universe is a long way from matching TV's 250 million viewers. And its potential as a fund-raising tool is unproven. Many candidates had hoped to use the Net to raise campaign cash, especially from small donors. But federal regulations bar public matching funds for credit-card contributions. On Mar. 18, the Bill Bradley for President campaign asked the Federal Election Commission to revamp its rules to catch up with technology. The FEC may consider the change at its Apr. 15 meeting.
Even boosters of online balloting see a potential downside: The public may demand instant votes whenever an issue flares up. "A slower process has the advantage of letting passions cool," says Minnesota State Senator Steve Kelley of the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party, sponsor of a bill authorizing a state study of Net voting.
Skeptics like GOP consultant Frank I. Luntz remain unconvinced that the Net will be crucial in elections but concede that its influence on politics is growing: Candidates ignore it at their peril. With 38% of online denizens identifying themselves as independents--just the sort of swing voters who determine elections--the Net could tip the balance in close races. Meanwhile, it's likely to modernize campaigns, educate voters, and boost turnout. And what's wrong with that?