Fertik, founder of Democrats.com, hopes to use voter donations to finance 5 million banner ads on the Web attacking Bush's military record. The effort has started slowly; by Thursday afternoon, he'd raised just $400.
Fertik isn't alone. A broader look at political advertising on the Web suggests that only a few dollars are finding their way to online campaign promotions. According to a recent study by Jupiter Media Metrix, political online advertising has completely dried up since the Democratic and Republican conventions in August.
"This was not the watershed year for politics on the Web," said Anne Rickert, measurement analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix.
After the presidential election four years ago, many speculated that the Internet would play a pivotal role in this year's political campaigns. A few, such as Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., predicted that the Net would revolutionize democracy. In an introduction to a book titled "The Net Effect," Rockefeller wrote: "Like radio and television before it, the Internet has the potential to dramatically change political campaigns and debates."
Yet, while Bush and Vice President Al Gore have talked about the Net in their presidential campaigns--and even quibbled over who invented it--neither is spending campaign dollars advertising online, leaving Rickert to believe that they are not taking advantage of the Web's wide appeal.
In a report titled "Campaign 2000: Party Politics on the World Wide Web," she found that online advertising by the Democratic and Republican national parties peaked during the weeks of their conventions as they tried to rally support for their respective leaders.
The Republicans posted 1,176 advertising impressions on the Net during the week of July 17, with that figure escalating to 3.8 million impressions by July 31. The Democrats posted about 8 million ad impressions during the week of Aug. 14.
From then until Sept. 30, however, neither party spent a dime of campaign money on Web advertising.
"The lack of party advertising may be a missed opportunity," Rickert wrote in her report.
The Net's swing vote
The Web is emerging as an important venue for candidates to sway undecided voters in the next 27 days until Election Day. Rickert noted the large number of adults online--roughly 36 percent--who say they haven't yet decided which man to pick for president. With the race running neck and neck, reaching people online could swing the vote in favor of either candidate.
The Bush and Gore campaigns have not ignored the Net. Both camps host sophisticated Web sites offering services such as the ability to send instant messages to the candidates or the provision of streaming media about their positions on hot issues.
But neither of the campaigns' official sites, AlGore2000.com and Georgewbush.com, are attracting a lot of visitors. Jupiter Media Metrix, one of the Web's top audience measurement companies, tallied 350,000 unique visitors to the Gore site in August; 467,000 people were newcomers to Bush's site during the same period.
What's more, cross-visitation at the two Web sites was minimal, meaning that few people were toggling back and forth to make up their minds about which candidate to vote for, the study found.
Disinterest rears its head
The lack of interest in online political advertising became apparent to Fertik when he sought voter help in funding banners that attack Bush's Air Force record.
His group tried to peddle to mainstream media an exposé asserting that Bush didn't report for duty for two years. But when newspapers and TV stations didn't bite, Fertik decided to buy banner impressions to get the message out.
The banners read "Bush was grounded in 1972. Was it for drugs?" and "Bush was AWOL for two years. Was it covered up?"
Fertik says he's still in negotiation with an online ad company to place the banners and says he's not disappointed with the $400 donation.
"This is totally a grassroots effort," he said. "Getting $5, $10 or even $50 donations shows that a lot of people are interested in getting the story out."
Fertik's tale is but one of many symptoms of a lackluster interest in the Web this political season--except, perhaps, during the presidential debates.
The event nature of the debates has sparked a flurry of activity on various sites. Truth detectors, pollsters and streaming media of Wednesday night's contest at Forest Hill University in Winston-Salem, N.C., could all be found on the Net.
Among the most novel of the Web features can be found in the Washington Post's online coverage, where an online referee icon flashes each time a candidate fibs during the debates.
For instance, Post staff writer Charles Babington flashed a referee icon when Bush said three men who brutally killed a black man got death sentences. One, Babington corrected, was spared death and received life in prison.
SpeakOut.com assembled a focus group of Wake Forest University students to rate the candidates on their performance during the debates. The candidates scored fairly evenly.
The next and final debate is scheduled for Oct. 17.