Web plays politics but doesn't take lead

Predictions from only a year ago that the Web would supplant television this election season don't pan out, but the Internet is still in the party.

4 min read
Predictions from only a year ago that the Web would supplant television this election season didn't pan out, but the Internet was still in the party.

Online media stayed in the wings during much of the campaign but took center stage during the finale, when television and newspapers fell victim to reporting glitches. Hungry for the latest news, Americans headed to cyberspace, causing some major media sites to buckle under heavy traffic.

The last-minute rush for online election information stood in contrast to the campaign as a whole, however, in which the Web played only a minimal role.

"There were high expectations for Election 2000," said Jeff Stanger, a Web strategist for several Democratic congressional candidates. "Except in a few cases, it didn't materialize."

Candidates raised only a fraction of their overall campaign budgets online. They also reserved the majority of their advertising spending for traditional venues such as television.

Voters largely stayed away from the Web for election news until the waning hours of the contest, when major news organizations prematurely called the neck-and-neck race in favor of Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Adding to the confusion, exit poll errors in Florida caused major TV networks to first hand Florida's electoral college vote to Vice President Al Gore and then pull it back later.

The Florida vote, separated by less than one-half of 1 percent, was forced into a recount under the state's election laws. Results of the recount are expected Thursday.

While waiting for word on the Florida recount, traffic to candidate and news sites continued to spike in the days following the election, according to Net audience rating company Nielsen/NetRatings.

The Georgewbush.com site jumped 195 percent Wednesday, drawing 288,517 visitors from 97,749 the day before.

Gore's site, Algore2000.com, crept up about 37 percent in the same time frame, with 111,274 visitors from 81,276.

Stanger said information on the Web was generally deeper and more accurate than that found elsewhere, but many Americans didn't have the patience during the campaign to click through pages of political news or to research candidate positions in-depth online.

In a sign of online voter apathy, Politics.com as well as a few other Web sites hoping to cash in on the rush for electoral news and analysis announced plans to throw in the towel just hours before the suspenseful presidential countdown began Tuesday night, citing a lack of audience interest.

"Expectations this year were so high that there was no way anybody was going meet those expectations no matter how hard they worked," said Cortland Coleman, the director of the Arizona Democratic Party.

Lessons from the e-campaign trail
Candidates themselves didn't take full advantage of the marketing potential of owning URLs.

In a study sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, political scientists found that a large percentage of the congressional candidates had Web sites.

Among candidates that did own Web sites, however, only a few updated information, even when it seemed most critical either to declare victory or concede in defeat.

"A campaign needs to look at itself as an e-business," said Larry Purpuro, Want election news? Get it here deputy chief of staff for the Republican National Committee. "Only then can a candidate exploit the full potential of the Web."

Bush and Gore both had sophisticated features on their Internet sites, using instant messaging and email to sway voters and convince donors. But Republican Web strategist Robert Arena said both parties could have done a better job promoting the sites when under the TV spotlight.

"At the convention, when all eyeballs were on the candidates, nowhere was there a URL directing people to their Web sites," Arena said. "Now the question is what happens to Bush's email list and Gore's email list? If they don't use it, the information will go stale, and neither party will be able to build on it for the next election."

And for all his grumbling about getting shut out of televised debates, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader rejected invitations to discuss his views online.

In short, the Web didn't budge from its supporting role to follow the influence the Richard Nixon-John F. Kennedy debates had in propelling television into a necessary tool for the game of politics.

Still, there were some highlights.

The public got a taste of online voting during the Democratic Arizona primary when 35,000 voters turned out for the election--some three times the number that participated in the state in the 1996 presidential election.

In addition, an online absentee balloting pilot took wing in five counties, allowing military personnel overseas to cast their votes over the Internet.

Online voting is unlikely to be authorized for wide use by the next presidential election in 2004. Still, analysts said the current election delays will increase momentum for an electronic ballot system.

"Results will come in faster, and it will be more accurate," Stanger said. "We won't have to count and recount ballots. Technology is always more accurate than paper."

Other promising signs for the increasing importance of Net politics included Sen. John McCain's widely admired use of the Internet in his failed bid for the presidency. McCain's online efforts are credited with helping raise more than $1 million in campaign donations.

The Republican party in particular put email to good use amassing more than a million addresses to send get-out-the-vote messages.

By the time the next presidential election rolls around, analysts say more candidates will be using the Web as a campaign tool. Arizona Democrat Coleman predicts candidates will make better use of their Web sites as campaign tools, information will be more easily available, and voters will be able to cast their ballots on their computers, mobile phones and other wireless devices.

"The Internet still had to be prodded," Coleman said. "But once it is, the elections will be safer, easier, and there will be none of this mess of recounting ballots. Technology is always better than paper."