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As election nears, Web's grass roots still growing

As the 2004 presidential campaign approaches its climax, Bush and Kerry rely on their Web sites more than ever.

Tech Industry
As the clock ticks down on the 2004 presidential race, the candidates have increased efforts to stay in touch with supporters and reach out to undecided voters, and the Web remains a primary weapon to do so.

The president's GeorgeWBush.com site and his rival's JohnKerry.com have undergone almost daily updates throughout the campaign, underscoring both teams' increased emphasis on the Internet. Coming down to the wire, the sites appear to be taking somewhat different paths in terms of spin, but based on the volume of new content alone, it's clear both candidates have embraced the medium.

With just one week to go until the Nov. 2 general election, the Bush site offered an array of anti-Kerry content on Tuesday, while the Kerry site remained centered more squarely on the candidate's own message.

News.context

What's new:
The current presidential campaigns have used the Web more--and more effectively--than previous campaigns to communicate with voters and marshal support.

Bottom line:
The candidates' e-campaigns are wrapping up, but not before the Web leaves an indelible mark on the changing face of modern elections.

More stories on politics and the Internet

Among the features on GeorgeWBush.com was a checklist of accusations against Kerry and his "liberal allies in Congress," along with an essay dubbed "John Kerry: The raw deal," and a gas tax calculator meant to provide financial estimates of how a Kerry win could hit drivers' pockets. The Kerry site took a more positive stance, leading with an essay on Kerry's pulpit issues, titled "A fresh start for America." However, the Democrat didn't completely avoid taking shots at his Republican rivals, posting one piece dubbed "Bush-Cheney--Wrong for America."

The leaders of both candidates' sites recently expressed their gratification at how well their respective Web campaigns have evolved, and the level at which their efforts have been tied into the larger campaign push.

"We've been completely integrated with the rest of the campaign all along, and worked very closely with our communications and political strategy shops," said Chuck DeFeo, eCampaign Manager for the Bush-Cheney effort. "As the campaign comes to a finish, we know that our job is only becoming more important by the day."

Josh Ross, director of Internet strategy for the Democratic ticket, voiced similar sentiments.

"The buy-in has been tremendous, from having Web strategy people like myself on the senior staff of the campaign from the beginning, to recognizing the importance of the Web site as a tool for building grassroots support," he said. "The 2004 campaign has looked at online strategy more than ever before."

The daily grind
Throughout the campaign, both sites have displayed impressive dexterity in terms of adding new content and matching each other's moves. The sites have often displayed similarly themed content on the same days, showing that the online campaigns have kept an eye on each other. And while neither has more than static plans for what will happen to the sites after the election has concluded, both teams say the sites will operate in some form.

The Bush site claims a team of 20 workers while the Kerry team numbers 30 staffers, but the two have become equally adept at using the Web to quickly adapt their campaigns' online messages. The fact that both sites feature animated cartoons parodying their rivals' positions and personalities also shows the campaigners have followed mainstream political trends, like the success of JibJab's political Flash cartoons.

Perhaps the most technology-centric efforts produced by either of the sites were the news feeds they created to serve as companions to the televised debates. Whereas in years past campaigners rushed to the fax machines during debates to send detailed candidate position statements and rebuttals to pools of journalists, the two sites offered direct feeds to voters in 2004. The Bush team created an online tool that pushed such information in real time to Web sites and Web logs, or blogs, that signed up for the news, while the Kerry campaign offered a similar service that provided e-mail responses to interested parties.

According to John Tedesco, an associate professor of communications at Virginia Tech and the author of "Changing the Channel: Use of the Internet for communicating about politics," the debate feeds are evidence of how online campaigns are circumventing traditional sources of campaign information, such as television or print news, a trend he expects to grow in future elections.

"In past elections, the candidates appealed to people to go to the Web sites, as did the media, but by and large people are now already aware of the sites' existence, and they're visiting them on their own," Tedesco said. "That is the biggest difference from years past--wider access and the shift in the number of people using (the candidate sites) as a primary source of information."

Tedesco says that in the future candidates will try to drive voters to their sites as a substitute for other forms of news media, which he sees the public increasingly labeling as biased. By encouraging people to get their news straight from their candidates, he contends, the Web will become an even more powerful campaign tool.

"In the past, we were relying more on investigative reporters doing independent fact-checks on candidates' claims, and even now we're relying more on the campaigns to provide that info," Tedesco said. "What that does, and will do even more in the future, is draw the campaigns even closer to the supporters. That's the power of the Web in today's politics."

The Dean technique
Despite the fact that the former Vermont governor's presidential campaign fizzled in the Democratic Party's Iowa primaries, there is no doubt that Dean's impact on the way political candidates harness the power of the Web will persevere. From using the Internet as an effective way to collect campaign contributions to fostering interaction among supporters, the Dean campaign made one fact abundantly clear: The Internet is the killer application for generating grassroots political interest.

"The Internet has been extremely successful at connecting (political campaigns) with the public."
--Josh Ross
the Kerry campaign's
director of Internet strategy

Online-campaign managers for both candidates agree that the biggest leap forward in the 2004 race is the use of campaign Web sites to communicate directly with the public. Whereas in the past, candidate sites largely served as libraries of information already available through the offline campaigns, this year the emphasis has been placed squarely on interactivity.

"We believe that there is no one better than our grassroots supporters to spread the president's message," DeFeo said. "The Internet has been our most powerful tool in empowering and energizing people. The site is getting people activated and providing them with the tools we feel will best help re-elect the president and vice president."

DeFeo points to the Bush site's success at recruiting supporters for door-to-door neighborhood walking tours, during which campaigners hand out literature and ask for votes. He said several thousand walks incorporating tens of thousands of volunteers were organized online during the first two weeks after the effort was launched. The Bush site also serves as a contact point for supporters willing to host campaign rallies in their homes, and it offers users the ability to garner contact information on 20 undecided voters in their region, whom they are encouraged to recruit.

The approach is very similar in the Kerry camp. Ross said volunteers have increasingly looked to the campaign's Web site for information on how to get involved on both the local and national levels.

"The Internet has been extremely successful at connecting with the public," Ross said. "In addition to recruiting volunteers, the site is also putting volunteers to work and giving them campaign-sanctioned activities to participate in. It's an absolutely vital tool, in that the site gives people the ability to organize in their own local communities and get other people involved."

The Kerry site mirrors the Bush site in many ways, offering the ability for volunteers to organize meetings, recruit fellow voters and host events. Both sites prominently feature tools to help get unregistered Americans signed up to vote in this year's election.

In one sense, however, interactivity on the two sites is very different. Both the Bush and Kerry sites offer blogs, with timely bits of information and news related to the presidential race. But the Kerry site allows registered users to post to its blog, while the Bush blog serves largely as another channel for distributing campaign-approved information.

To Ross, the difference in blogging philosophies is representative of the candidates' respective politics.

"Rather than just sending out the message, our blog is an interactive source for building a community, for facilitating discussions and giving feedback, or for volunteers to communicate with each other and (the) campaign," Ross said. "That's a pretty big difference in terms of how we approach it."

The money game
In all likelihood, Dean's greatest impact on the election process wasn't his piloting of online grassroots interaction through sites such as Meetup.com. Rather, the most compelling element of his campaign in the eyes of many political minds was his breakout success at generating online campaign contributions.

Dean's ability to encourage large numbers of supporters to donate small amounts of money electronically was one of his greatest assets, and arguably what kept him in the race throughout the democratic primaries, said Grant Reeher, associate professor of political science at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Reeher said presidential candidates still have room to improve their online fund-raising efforts but admitted that the 2004 campaign has finally showed that the Web is a powerful finance tool.

"The way the campaigns are looking at the Internet is still dominated by the approach that the Web is a tool to leverage things out of the public, and the most dramatic example is the way the Internet has been used this time around to generate funds," Reeher said. "Howard Dean is obviously exhibit A, but Kerry has raised a lot of money as well, particularly at important points in the campaign."

Reeher said the Bush campaign has been less forthcoming about how much money it has raised online, but DeFeo says his site's financial efforts have also been well-received by the public.

"We raised nearly $14 million online during the primaries alone, and we continue to raise money for the president, as well as the Republican Party, and the general election legal and compliance fund," he said. "But we felt that fund-raising was really only a piece of what we do. What's been important to us is that we have a multidimensional e-campaign, rather than focus on the single goal of raising money online. We're more about taking action."

According to the Federal Election Committee's campaign finance Web site, total fund-raising for the Bush and Kerry campaigns was $537 million as of May 30, representing a 62 percent increase over the amount of funds raised at the same point in the 2000 battle. Also increasing were the number of small contributions, totaling less than $200. As a rule, the majority of online contributions fall into this category, according to Ron Rapoport, chair of the government department at the College of William and Mary.

But unlike Dean, Kerry has not fared as well as his rival in generating larger numbers of smaller contributions, said Rapoport, whose research indicates that Bush is winning that battle.

"In the past, we were relying more on investigative reporters doing independent fact-checks on candidates' claims, and even now we're relying more on the campaigns to provide that info."
--John Tedesco, associate professor of communications at Virginia Tech

"Republicans have always been much better at (asking for smaller donations) than the Democrats," he said. "In spite of what one would think, the Democrats did much less well on small contributions than Republicans. Democrats did as well with big contributions, and I think what this showed was...that it wasn't really laziness but that they weren't really doing their homework."

To Kerry online-campaign leader Ross, his site's ability to garner donations has had a major effect, despite any numbers to the contrary. He labeled the development of the medium "a profound difference" from earlier campaigns and argued that online fund-raising efforts are certain to grow even more aggressive in future races.

Critical appeal
While the two online campaign managers resisted taking outright shots at each other's sites, some outsiders have not been as forgiving. Bruce Tempkin, analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., has identified major flaws in both candidates' online offerings. Tempkin criticized the two campaigns for failing to meet established standards of site design, access for disabled people and even assuring users' privacy.

Tempkin said both campaigns' pages were tough to navigate and hard to read. According to the analyst's methodology, the Bush and Kerry sites do not meet well-established standards in Web design.

The Bush-Cheney site's major navigational elements--the left-hand navigation bar and the tabs near the top of the page--use fonts that appear to be only 7 point," Tempkin said. "The 'latest headlines' listed in the middle of the home page are only slightly larger. At the top of the page, the texts in the links are nearly microscopic. And each of the pages under the main tabs present links to the latest content using red text on a bluish background, a verboten combination."

Kerry's site also scored poorly on design.

"The Kerry site also uses very small fonts (about 7.5 point) for its left- hand navigation bar, combined with a low-contrast blue-on-blue color scheme," Tempkin wrote. "The options at the top of the home page aren't much bigger. Most of the rest of the home page suffers from a combination of small fonts and poor color contrast--including light blue text on white, and gray on light blue. And when users try to make a contribution, they're greeted with a page full of 7.5-point-font instructions."

Tempkin gave both sites failing grades in regard to meeting the needs of disabled users. He pointed out that the Bush-Cheney home page uses tabs small enough to make it difficult for physically impaired users to align a mouse on the correct links. On Kerry's site, the left-hand navigation bar requires users to place their mouse directly over a tiny target--text in a very small font--once again challenging impaired Web surfers.

Similarly vexing is the two sites' failure in terms of protecting users' privacy. According to Tempkin, the privacy policy on GeorgeWBush.com is virtually hidden, and though a link to the policy exists on all pages, he contends many users would likely miss it. He said that when the site collects personal information, such as when a visitor signs up for e-mail alerts, it does not provide a prominent link to the privacy policy in context.

The analyst said JohnKerry.com does a better job of displaying its privacy policy than the Bush site, following de facto standards by providing a link to the policy at the bottom of its pages. But when the site collects personal information for e-mail alerts or contributions it also fails to provide a more prominent link to the privacy policy specifically for that action.

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