The Web is emerging as a major force in the political process as Election 2000 heads into high gear.
Justin Dangel thinks Voter.com can inspire citizens to get more involved in the political process.
Inside the sleek offices of SpeakOut.com, Ron Howard talks about empowering voters to voice opinions about the politicians and issues that interest them.
At Vote.com, Dick Morris, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton, wants to “drown out the special interests that run Congress.”
Freedomchannel.com can give voters vital information on candidates and issues with its online videos, asserts Doug Bailey.
At Grassroots.com, John Crandon is offering voters the tools they need to band together with like-minded people and interact with decision-makers.
These sites are among the more than 16 political Web sites that have cropped up in the past six months. Under the guise of enhancing political dialogue, most seek the lucre at the end of the dot.com rainbow. Others, like the nonprofit Freedomchannel.com, want to dispel voter apathy by offering easily accessible nonpartisan content. All seek to tap voter frustration with an election system that seems to work best for the candidate with the most cash.
But the question is: Can the Internet really enhance the democratic process?
“I think the future of trying to get people re-interested in the political process clearly involves the Internet,” Bailey says.
Public-policy experts are not so sanguine. “No technology has ever increased voter participation,” says Michael Cornfield, an associate research professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “That is a historical fallacy. If the Internet is to play a role in expanding the electorate, it will be because of candidates like John McCain and Bill Bradley, not because of these for-profit startups.”
Gearing Up for THE Election
The rhetoric of the Internet’s promise has shifted into high gear thanks to Election 2000. Candidates are raising record amounts of cash through the Internet, and one state–Arizona–will even offer citizens the option of voting online if a recently filed lawsuit doesn’t stop it.
No one can ignore the fact that the Internet is proving to be a money-making machine. Case in point: McCain supporters turned to their computers in droves to deliver a whopping $415,000 in political contributions within 24 hours of his New Hampshire primary victory.
“John McCain calls the Internet ‘the great equalizer,’ ” said his Internet manager, Max Fose, in an interview with Freedomchannel.com. “There are a number of reports out there from Republican strategists that said John McCain doesn’t have enough turnaround time before South Carolina to be competitive. With a half-million dollars raised within 24 hours without doing an event, we’ve just proved we can be competitive in South Carolina financially. The Internet has just changed the politics right here.”
Other candidates have also used the Internet to their advantage. Although Steve Forbes recently dropped out of the presidential race, he used the Web to good effect while running his campaign. Rick Segal, Forbes’s Internet advisor, credits the Web with helping his candidate recruit 85,000 online volunteers. “The Internet enables outsider candidates like Forbes to assemble a large national organization that would have taken a career politician a lifetime to organize,” Segal says. “In that sense, it has really made a difference.”
But the Internet does not provide everyone with a level playing field. Arizona’s plan to hold the first online voting in any national election, scheduled to take place during the state’s Democratic primary March 7 through 10, is being challenged in Federal District Court in Phoenix by one black voter, one Hispanic voter and a nonprofit public interest group. The petitioners argue that the digital divide makes whites more likely to have Internet access than other racial groups.
“Internet voting, however well-intentioned, is not secure from fraud and is grossly unfair to persons without Internet access,” says Deborah Phillips, president of the Voting Integrity Project in Arlington, Va. “This is just a new-millennium version of the literacy test.”
Politics has long made for strange bedfellows, but only in cyberspace could groups like the Christian Coalition, the Sierra Club and People for the American Way work for the same team. They are all founding members of Boston-based Voter.com.
Flush with about $20 million from venture capital firms like Sigma Partners and Charles River Ventures, the site offers Web surfers the ability to research key issues, analyze a candidate’s position and e-mail decision-makers. Presidential candidates are charged $200 a month to post content on the site, while state legislators pay a $50 monthly stipend for a soapbox.
“Candidates need a platform to communicate with voters that is not expensive like television,” says Dangel, founder and CEO. “Users need assistance so they can track the issues.”
Voter.com, which launched Nov. 9, moves beyond the 30-second political ad, says Dangel . Traditional television spots, which only allow for short bursts of communication with viewers, prompt candidates to run attack ads in order to get the most bang for the buck, he maintains.
Dangel is also spending $20 million to advertise the site. Boston agency Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos had its billings top $50 million last year, thanks to dot.com firms like Dangel’s. The ads, which broke this month, focus on the Internet as a useful tool. “The decisions haven’t gotten any easier,” says a voice in a TV spot. “Participating and making them has.”
Voter.com signed up Craig Smith, Al Gore’s former 2000 campaign manager, to present the Democratic viewpoint. The Christian Coalition’s former executive director, Randy Tate, represents the Republican platform.
Attaching political names like these to a site’s roster can help generate needed buzz, especially in a city like Washington. SpeakOut.com’s chairman and CEO Howard has former Reagan White House deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver on his board of advisers.
Howard’s enthusiasm about the Internet’s potential is boundless. He speaks of the medium in gushing tones of wonder and is not shy about wanting to bring the Web’s success in the commercial world to the political arena. The Net’s “interactivity,” which allows people to respond directly to information not filtered through traditional media, is what Howard finds so appealing. He is betting that others will appreciate it as well.
“People can have individual voices and express that at blazing speeds,” Howard says. “We break down the information in seconds. We do not spin it, alter it or direct it. We just report it.” Instead of sending on every e-mail, flooding Capitol Hill or the White House with thousands of messages, the site aggregates the data and then sends a summary sheet to politicians.
Howard hopes to make more than $5 million in revenue this year by selling polling data to special interest groups and others. This part of his plan has attracted the most controversy because no one has yet figured out a way to make Internet polls scientific. Since the entire country lacks access to the Net, sampling is skewed toward younger, wealthier people and responses are not representative of the entire population. It is also difficult to determine when participants respond to a polling question more than once. Howard says his team is working on its own polling technique to address such concerns.
SpeakOut.com’s advertising budget is more modest than Voter.com’s, though Howard declines to name a figure. He has lured Dave Mangan, a former creative director at Chicago-based Leo Burnett, to become director of marketing communications for the Washington-based site. Mangan’s creative, which broke on TV Feb. 20 and in print today, features average folks who share names with the more politically prominent. Mangan scoured the country to find a Pat Buchanan (a woman in North Carolina), a Janet Reno (she lives in Ohio) and a Jimmy Carter (he’s a 27-year-old with tattoos). In the spots, an announcer says: “Now everyone can have a voice and be heard.”
CAST YOUR BALLOT
At Vote.com, Netizens can cast ballots on topics like taxes or health care, and their responses are sent by e-mail to the President and key decision-makers in Congress. The for-profit New York-based site sells polling data and engages in e-commerce activities including the sale of videos and books.
Vote.com drew attention after its Oct. 30 launch when a Congressional staffer called the forwarded e-mails “spam.” The White House also initially refused to accept the messages, concerned that it could not handle the volume.
Morris, who founded the site, has a ready, and oft-quoted, retort: “Any elected official that thinks a communication from his constitutents is spam, I think is pork, and if he doesn’t get it, he will be roast pork.”
As to whether the polls are scientific, Morris’s attitude is, who cares? “An election is not a statistically valid sampling of the population either–it is only the people who choose to vote,” he says. “Online voting is a form of political karaoke. We are giving people a mike and letting them speak.”
Morris thinks it is only a matter of time before “the locus of political activity in America shifts from television to the Internet.”
Freedomchannel.com, which launched Nov. 8, takes a different approach. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Washington-based site gives all congressional, gubernatorial and presidential candidates, as well as all political parties and special interest groups, a showcase for videos of up to 90 seconds on topics of their choice.
Bailey sees video-on-demand through the Net as tomorrow’s form of television. “You want to be able to dial up George W. Bush on education and get specifics,” he says.
The newest of the sites is Grassroots.com, which launched Feb. 15. Based in San Bruno, Calif., it is designed to drive community action, enabling groups of any size to reach out and organize. “It’s a modern-day public forum or town hall,” says founder Crandon. The for-profit venture will help groups with fund-raising efforts by offering polling services or selling tickets online, for example.
Whether the Internet replaces television or is considered just one more way of reaching voters, it can’t help but change politics, says Karen Jagoda, president of Turtleback Interactive, a Web business development firm, who has studied the role the Net can play in a political campaign. If candidates want to reach younger adults–a group not noted for casting votes on election day–Jagoda says they must use a medium that will reach them.
“Twenty-somethings don’t read newspapers,” she says.
“They go online.”
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