A Tougher Cyber-Campaign Trail

Many candidates are finding that the Net can hurt as well as help their election drives. Still, innovation thrives

At the Presidential nominating conventions two years ago, cybernauts were everywhere, hawking their Web sites and declaring that the Internet would revolutionize political campaigns. Their message: The Net would provide a low-cost fund-raising vehicle as well give candidates a continuously updated database to target ever-narrower slivers of the electorate.

Alas, the technowhizzes' big dreams have yet to materialize. If anything, Campaign 2002 will probably be remembered for uncovering some of the dangers inherent in using the Internet as a campaign tool. "The big bang is yet to come," says Phil Noble, founder of PoliticsOnline.com.

Changes have been more evolutionary than revolutionary. The bright spots: Candidates and parties are raising more money than ever on the Web. They're using the Net to motivate and mobilize their supporters. And more Americans voters than ever -- about one in seven -- look to the Internet for political news, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.


  But the big story is that the technological momentum of 2000 has slowed significantly. Online news consumption has increased only marginally in the past two years, from 33% to 35% of Americans, according to Pew. Yet, it has dropped among two key demographic groups. Among the most likely voters -- the elderly -- online news viewing has dropped from 12% to 9%, Pew found.

And among the biggest consumers of online news, those under age 30, the percentage of those seeking political info on the Net dropped from 46% to 44%. One main reason may be that 2000 was a Presidential election year with lots of interest, something Campaign 2002 has yet to generate.

Another disappointment for cyberpols: The Internet has not yet proven to be an effective source for persuading voters. Indeed, polls show that voters go to campaign Web sites that reinforce their views rather than to sites that might shape their views. What's more, many voters resent receiving unsolicited e-mail from candidates. In North Carolina, Republican Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole's campaign has been sued by a man who claims she improperly "spammed" him.


  Then there was California GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Jones, whose unsuccessful primary effort was hurt with an embarrassing spam episode. The Jones campaign got into hot water when it used an address harvester to send unsolicited bulk e-mails routed through a Korean Internet service provider. The campaign sent these political messages to a number of addresses ending in ".ca," perhaps thinking they were California voters. Instead, the recipients were e-mail users in Canada.

The troubles haven't ended there. With voters more comfortable than ever using e-mail and the Internet, antiquated U.S. Senate rules have hobbled some lawmakers' Web sites. The rules treat senators' sites the way they treat the taxpayer-financed mailings that legislators periodically send to constituents. These "franked" letters are banned during the 60 days before an election. Likewise, senators running for reelection are barred from changing their office Web sites for the final 60 days of a campaign.

As a result, senators in tough reelection races, including Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.), Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), and Max Cleland (D-Ga.) have sites that look hopelessly out of date. The situation is particularly embarrassing for Johnson and Cleland: They're running against House members who are permitted to update their Web pages.


  Despite all these pitfalls, candidates, parties, and interest groups are turning to the Internet more aggressively than ever. The AFL-CIO, in particular, has embraced e-mail in an effort to get union members and their families to the polls. And the Democratic National Committee has dramatically increased its technological capabilities, significantly boosting its electronic fund-raising and electronically sending cash immediately to state parties to identify and turn out its voters.

The Republican Party still has a slight edge when it comes to harnessing technology. But the GOP's once-daunting advantage in the size of its voter database and the quality of its graphic and video capabilities has been considerably narrowed as the result of a counteroffensive by Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.

Individual candidates also have won plaudits for their Internet savvy. Among gubernatorial contenders, California rivals Bill Simon Jr. and Gray Davis are actively using e-mail to respond to voter questions and concerns. "It's an important part of the dialogue in the campaign," says Noble. "It used to be used for preaching to the choir. They're using it for persuasion."


  Among the top candidate sites of 2002, says Noble, are those of Lamar Alexander, the Republican Senate candidate in Tennessee, and GOP Governor Jeb Bush of Florida. These sites are rich in graphics, contain useful links to other sites, and have advanced interactivity, he notes.

What's more, office-seekers are spending an ever-larger share of their advertising dollars with ISPs. America Online allows candidates to "geotarget" their campaign ads down to the Zip code, says Michael Bassik, AOL manager for local business solutions. Other examples of microtargeting offered by AOL this year: men over 55, women between the ages of 18 and 44, residents of certain states or regions. Candidates signing up for the service range from a Maryland House of Delegates wannabe to the hotly contested Missouri Senate race.

Technology's luster may well shine again in coming cycles, as the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law restricts the flow of soft money used for massive TV buys. That means politicians who use the Internet well -- the same way they use other media effectively -- will be more effective candidates.

By Richard S. Dunham in Washington

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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