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Public flocks to Bush, Dean sites

New research indicates that people are increasingly using the Internet to garner information on at least two candidates as the 2004 U.S. presidential election approaches.

New research indicates that people are increasingly using the Internet to garner information on at least two candidates, as the 2004 U.S. presidential election approaches.

According to a report released Wednesday by Nielsen/NetRatings, a total of 1.3 million people flocked to the president's Bush-Cheney '04 site and Democratic hopeful Gov. Howard Dean's Dean for America site during December 2003.

Dean has been credited with being the first political candidate to truly tap into the Web's potential to organize large amounts of supporters and campaign contributions. His site attracted almost twice as many Web hits, with 940,000 for the month, as President Bush, whose site attracted 455,000 visitors during the same time frame.

A Nielsen/NetRatings representative said the company did not include results for the other Democratic hopefuls in its report, because the traffic levels on those sites fell below the firm's cutoff point for measuring unique visitors.

Based on the study, most people heading to the two political rivals' sites were not engaging in head-to-head comparisons. New York-based Nielsen/NetRatings said the number of Web users visiting both sites was relatively small, at 97,000. The company also reported that individuals calling up Dean's Web pages tended to view the site for nearly four times as long as those who were checking out Bush's site. Dean site visitors spent an average of eight minutes and 38 seconds on the candidate's site; Bush site visitors stuck around for an average of two minutes and 12 seconds each.

Greg Bloom, an analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings, said the lack of visitor overlap between the Bush and Dean sites is a good indicator of the polarized environment currently present in U.S. politics. He observed that one reason Dean's site has generated so much traffic is its nearly daily addition of new content. Bloom signed up for all of the e-mail distribution mailing lists offered by the various candidates, from Bush to Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and found that Dean's list offered the most frequent updates on new Web site content.

"It's truly amazing just how much the Dean campaign has cranked out on a daily basis," Bloom said. "It's a testament to how serious (Dean) truly is in using the Web as an important part of his campaign."

And while Democratic candidate and Iowa caucus winner Sen. John Kerry hasn't garnered as much attention for his online efforts, Bloom pointed to the presidential hopeful's victory speech Monday night in Iowa as proof that Dean's rivals continue to highlight their Web sites.

Kerry "was practically begging people to go to his Web site, so you can see that the other candidates recognize the significance of what Dean has been able to accomplish."

The Nielsen/NetRatings study indicated that visitors came from different geographic locations. The company said some 29 percent of the surfers on Dean's site were located in the Pacific West region, with 27 percent of Bush's Web traffic coming from the Middle Atlantic or Northeast sections of the country.

Both candidates failed to garner significant numbers of online viewers from the New England region, which is faced with this week's Democratic primary in New Hampshire. The Bush site counted just 9 percent of its visitors as being from the region; Dean's site counted just 7 percent.

The study also highlighted race and gender differences between persons who spent time at the two Web sites. Some 83 percent of people heading to Dean's site were Caucasian, compared with 95 percent for Bush's site visitors. In contrast, 10 percent of those hitting the Dean site were African-American, compared with 2 percent of those seeking information on Bush. The president's site generated 43 percent of its traffic from women, while females visiting Dean's site accounted for 36 percent of its audience.

Visitors to both sites showed high levels of education, with 28 percent Dean's visitors and 32 percent Bush's visitors claiming to have postgraduate degrees.

While the president's online efforts have received little attention, Dean has gained praise for his ability to generate both volunteers and financial supporters via the Web. According to members of the candidate's campaign, self-organizing networks of supporters using third-party sites such as Meetup and an active legion of Web loggers have helped spur Dean's movement forward.

More than 177,000 people are registered for Dean get-togethers through Meetup, while Democratic rival Wesley Clark boasts just 58,900 and Kerry counts only 18,900. However, Dean's campaign has also admitted that on at least one occasion, it used spam e-mail tactics to send information to an unsuspecting audience.