Whistlestops in cyberspace

As November approaches, Web pages have become a campaign staple for many politicians. Yet despite the Net's sudden popularity as a political device, it is too soon to trumpet the unbridled success of online campaigning.

CNET News staff
5 min read
When Gary Selnow thinks of political campaigning on the Web, he doesn't imagine information sent out over electronic lines. He sees train tracks.

Each computer connected to the Internet--whether installed at a corporate suite in midtown Manhattan or a pine cabin in Whitefish, Montana--is, for Selnow, like a whistlestop town of a half-century ago. Just as in 1948, when Harry Truman stopped his campaign locomotive at "whistlestops" across middle America, the Internet now brings campaign information to individual Netizens.

A professor of communications at San Francisco State University, Selnow has spent much of his life examining the best way to target an audience, through print, radio, and TV. But with the Internet, all that he has studied is about to change.

"This medium has something that is different than any communication medium the planet has ever seen," he said. "Political campaigning will be one of the best ways to chart the way that the Internet revolutionizes communications."

As November approaches, Web pages have become a campaign staple for many politicians, especially those who want to show that they're in touch with younger voters. Politicians covet the ability to spread their message to millions of voters unfiltered by the news media, all for the relatively low cost of building and maintaining a Web site.

The new tactic has created yet another cottage industry on the Net, one for developers and designers who are quickly learning the particular needs of a political Web site.

"We look at politics as an area where the Internet [fits] naturally because successful politics is about effective communication," said Josh Ross, CEO of USWeb Networkers, a Palo Alto, California based-affiliate of USWeb, a company that has helped build, maintain, and update campaign sites for candidates such as Silicon Valley Rep. Tom Campbell (R-California), Rep. Jane Harman (D-California), Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), and Reform Party candidate Ross Perot.

Yet despite the Net's sudden popularity as a political device, it is too soon to trumpet the unbridled success of online campaigning. Candidates complain about the staff and resources they devote to the Net, saying that it simply doesn't reach a wide enough audience. And those surfers they do reach say they are unsure whether the information presented on the sites is credible or just another form of political advertisement.

"Campaign Web sites are the clearest demonstration of Web sites as advertisements," said Evans Witt, executive editor of Politics Now, a Web site that posts political stories from news organizations including ABC News, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. "This is not a negative comment. This is what the Web was designed for. Campaign sites do what corporate Web sites do: They make information available about the products that they have."

At least some Web surfers see a more negative element. John Montana, a biology researcher at Dana Farber in Boston and a frequent Net surfer, says he has been to the campaign sites for President Clinton, Republican challenger Bob Dole, and Sen. Bob Kerry (D-Massachusetts). But not for the facts.

"It is like being trapped in a political commercial on TV where all you ever hear is rhetoric and the facts that a particular side wants you to hear," he said. "I don't know if sites created by campaign staffs could ever be useful, since I see usefulness in terms of objectivity and these home pages are never objective. I want facts but not just bits and pieces of them."

Instead, Montana goes to Web sites set up by political magazines and newspapers for "objective" information. "They are more useful because they serve as a more reliable source," he said, adding that it is easy to find important information because news sites allow users to search candidates' voting records and policy positions.

So what is the future of Internet campaigning? That will depend, to a large extent, on the evolution of the medium itself.

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"Campaigns are creatures of the moment. They are not trendsetters; they will follow the technology," said Chad Kilbourne, executive assistant to the commissioner of housing and urban renewal in New York, who ran a regional campaign for George Pataki's 1994 successful bid for governor. "Until the Net is really a mass medium that can reach more voters than radio, more voters than TV, the campaign Web sites and chat rooms will never be anything more than a supplement to traditional campaign methods."
Others are more optimistic. Selnow, whose next book is about Internet campaigning, believes that the future of the Net will be the ability to target the audience. Future campaigns will "issue-model," or monitor a potential voter's movement through a site and analyze patterns to anticipate where that person will go.

This means that the site will be able to identify voters and tailor its content to their interests, presenting the information in ways that they find accessible--or, as others might say more cynically, giving them what they want to hear. Sites such as the Dole-Kemp page already use issue-modeling techniques to customize information for repeat visitors.

Ross believes that convenience may be the reason that voters turn to the campaign information online. Web sites may not produce any online epiphanies, but they do give Netizens a chance to get involved without some of the obstacles of the physical world. Candidates can stuff email boxes with flyers and petitions just as they send out in the real-world mail. The only difference is it's free and all done with the click of a button.

Volunteers can also sign up to volunteer through Web sites. The Dole campaign, for example, has signed up more than 6,000 people to volunteer for the campaign since launching its site a year ago. Users can also go to Campaign 96, a site built as a public service by USWeb, which links to all the state and national candidate sites, or even register to vote online at places like NetVote '96, which is also sponsored by MTV's well-known Rock the Vote site.

"We're still finding out what works and what doesn't," a Dole aide said, "but grass-roots organization may turn out to be the most important thing the Web can offer."

Perhaps most important, Ross said, is the money. "The Web will really become big for politics when candidates can get donations over the Net," he said, pointing out that right now it is a hassle for potential donors to give amounts as small as $25. "The Net will fill a gap. The day that people begin to donate money because they can give what they want, when they want, with just the click of a button, candidates will really begin to take campaign Web pages seriously."

And, as with all things online, the future is never far away.