Virtually Kissing Babies?

Net politics is growing, but it's not a potent grassroots tool yet

Back in 1991, Jonah Seiger spent a summer canvassing voters in suburban Detroit, trying to drum up support for campaign-finance and auto- insurance reform. Occasionally he found a bit of interest; more often, surly homeowners sicced the family pooch on him.

Now the dog days of Seiger's political organizing are ancient history--rendered obsolete by the power of cyberspace. In a recent campaign against antiporn restrictions on the Internet, Seiger helped organize a massive grassroots lobbying effort from the comfort of his keyboard. The campaign flooded Capitol Hill with more than 20,000 calls, faxes, and E-mail messages on one December day alone. "The online world has already changed democracy," argues Seiger, an analyst with the Center for Democracy & Technology. Maybe--but despite the blitz, Seiger's side still lost.

Call it the cyberpolitics paradox: Activists of all stripes are catching Web fever even as the payoffs remain slim. So far, politics on the Internet is more an exotic entertainment than a potent campaign tool. "For now, the idea of electronic democracy is on hold," says Roger Hurwitz, a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

LAPTOP BRIGADE. That hasn't deterred pols from rushing online. For the first time, Net surfers can download screen savers with images of GOP Presidential front-runner Bob Dole, get their taxes calculated under California's flat-tax initiative, or keep "instep" with the candidates on Johnston & Murphy's tongue-in-shoe guide to the Presidential race. Virtually all major candidates--even half the members of the stodgy Senate--now have their own Web sites, and companies such as Stardot Consulting Ltd. and Votelink Inc., both in Boulder, Colo., have sprung up to help techno-novice office-seekers take to the online hustings. Instead of fearing Pat Buchanan's pitchfork-wielding revolutionaries, "politicians need to watch for cybervoters coming over the hills with laptops," promises Votelink President Alexia Parks.

Internet denizens claim to have influenced the outcome in close races, such as Democratic Representative Ron Wyden's recent victory in Oregon. But so do environmentalists and other interest groups lobbying the old-fashioned way. In fact, the major political benefit of being online now seems to be simply avoiding the label of technophobe. "You may be more hurt by not having a Web site than helped by having one," says Stardot President Jared P. Schutz.

One problem is the small audience in cyberspace. "The Internet still does not reach enough people to have a major effect," says Andrew Weinstein, Webmeister for the Dole campaign. While up to 19 million Americans have Internet accounts, less than 10% probably surf political pages. Of those, only a few thousand will actually be influenced by a candidate's online offering, Weinstein figures. Indeed, donations spurred by Dole's--considered to be the most entertaining of the bunch--are peanuts, just enough to pay for its $10,000 cost.

With Net use exploding--half of those online came aboard in the past year--experts believe cyberpolitics will become crucial by 2000. But politicians will have to become more sophisticated first, cybergurus say. Right now, "putting up a Web site is like putting literature on a table in your campaign office," says California computer columnist Jim Warren. "That's not campaigning."

What's more, experts argue, the true value of the cyberworld--and the key to its ultimate political power--comes from its two-way communication. "For the past hundred years, people have had no control over the content of messages from politicians and advertisers, or when or how they came," explains Jonathan P. Gill, a former White House aide. "With the new media, you can relate to people as partners instead of targets."

For politicians, that would mean actually listening to the online masses, not just to pollsters or a few well-connected constituents--a threatening notion to many old-line pols. But as more citizens use the Net, they'll demand no less from their candidates, predicts Gill. If politicians don't treat voters as partners by the 2000 election, "there will be a train wreck," he warns.

"BILLBOARDS." A few politicians have heeded that call: Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) wins kudos for holding electronic town meetings. But, notes MIT's Hurwitz, "most of the Web sites just look like advertising billboards." In fact, many sites, including Dole's, don't allow browsers to send E-mail to the campaign staff. And even Congress' savviest Net nerds are still searching for ways to sift through the flood of E-mail they do receive in order to cull the views of actual constituents who live--and vote--in their districts.

Indeed, although legions of dabbling cyberpols trumpet it as the wave of the future, the vote on electronic democracy is still out.

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