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Virtual Politics: The Internet in U.S. Elections

by Richard Davis


Has anyone here not heard of the internet? If I had asked the question 5 years ago, some of you might have raised your hands. If I had asked the question 10 years ago, most of you would have raised your hands. This is the most dramatic mass acceptance of a new technology since television.

Increasing numbers of Americans are logging on to the internet. Internet use is now a part of the daily schedule of the vast majority of online users. Over 90 percent of internet users say they go online at least daily; two-thirds go online for at least 10 hours per week; and nearly one-third go on the web for at least 20 hours per week.

A talisman of the future role of the internet is in the age group to which it most appeals. The internet has caught the attention of younger people, particularly. People under 25 are the most frequent users of the internet. Dramatic growth can be partially attributed to the increase in information available. One study found that the number of internet domains has mushroomed, and users are far more likely now than in the early 1990s to find sites of interest for activities such as online shopping, planning vacations, checking stocks, or purchasing a home or a car. Everyone these days seems to have a web page. Internet terms now roll off our tongues — World Wide web, web site, home page, hits, chat rooms. From news reports and personal conversations, onw might think everyone in the world is online. However, that is certainly not true.

The internet has become a tool largely of the affluent. In the United States, the internet has a wide reach, but many are left out. Those left out tend to be minorities, the poor, the less educated. Blacks, Hispanics, and native Americans are significantly less likely than whites to have internet access at home, and the gap between white and minority use of the internet has actually grown, not shrunk, in recent years.Income and education also are clear barriers to internet use. Two-thirds of households with incomes less than $25,000 do not use the internet. While three-fifths of those with college degrees now use the internet, only one-third of those with less than a high school education do so.

Politics and the Web

As with any new communications technology, the obvious question for a political scientist is, “What effect does this have on politics?” Political scientists, moreover, are not the only ones asking this question; so are candidates, political consultants, journalists, and, even voters.

The initial reaction to the internet was hyperbole. The internet was predicted to be the great vehicle for educating the masses, a surefire way to stimulate citizen participation in government, an effective means for gauging the public will, and a new way for people to actually vote from the comfort of their home. It has been termed a “powerful technology for grassroots democracy” and one that “strengthens democracy” by “facilitating discussion and collective action by citizens. ” It also has been called potentially “the most powerful tool for political organizing developed in the past fifty years. ” Even more grandly, according to some observers, the internet is imbued with the capability to restructure relations between people on the planet and solve vexing economic, social, and political problems. Generally, the predicted internet revolution in politics can be divided into three segments: 1) an increase in access to information by ordinary citizens, 2) enhanced ability for citizens to interact with government, and 3) altered policymaking allowing more of the public will to be reflected in policy.

The common promise of the internet is two-fold. First, it assures an increase in information readily available to the average citizen, and secondly, it provides more individual control over what information is received. Combined, these aspects of the internet seem to promise true citizen awareness. Accordingly, political scientist Anthony Corrado concludes the result may well be “a revitalized democracy characterized by a more active and informed citizenry, ” and Howard Fineman has claimed that “access to political information is being radically democratized.”The web has already made extensive amounts of information accessible to users in electronic form. Previously, access to this material would have required extensive research and long hours in libraries. The future bodes well for more information appearing, and much of it could be useful for political purposes. The ideal is that citizens armed with such information will then be able to interact intelligently with government officials to articulate their concerns. According to former PBS president Lawrence Grossman, the internet is making the previously passive into political activists. He writes in his book The Electronic Republic: “In kitchens, living rooms, dens, bedrooms, and workplaces throughout the nation, citizens have begun to apply such electronic devices to political purposes, giving those who use them a degree of empowerment they never had before.”

Perhaps the greatest expectation of the internet is its promise to help average citizens affect policy. Involvement by common citizens, it is predicted, will alter the policy-making process, thus enabling the citizenry to instantaneously communicate their wishes to their representatives. According to Grossman: “By pushing a button, typing on-line, or talking to a computer, they will be able to tell their president, senators, members of Congress, and local leaders what they want them to do and in what priority order.” In response to criticism that this kind of democratic participation is dangerous, proponents argue that, if properly informed, the citizenry are capable of serving in such a role. The solution is not to undo technology, but to educate the public to perform their essential democratic tasks.

The Realities of Political Participation

The above scenario of enhanced voter information and participation is particularly appealing in an age of intense cynicism about the common person’s ability to affect policy. Yet, plainly these lofty predictions assume some quite unusual and dramatic changes in human behavior. Anthony Corrado admits that the success of new technology as a democratic tool depends on “the willingness of significant numbers of citizens to take advantage of these extraordinary new tools to engage in meaningful political discourse, become better informed voters, and get more involved in civic life. ” However, there is no evidence such a change will occur. The scenario of an active, informed electorate gathering information and expressing opinions electronically is accurate for some individuals, namely those who are already politically interested and motivated. For that group, the internet will be a tremendous boon in the process of collecting information, interacting with policymakers, and, indeed, shaping policy.

But for the majority who are less politically interested, this scenario is unreal. Most people will not be more likely, just because of a technological innovation, to suddenly acquire an interest in politics and become political activists. Politics is a peripheral interest for most people. They do not take the time to become better informed because they lack incentive to do so. As Russell Neuman has noted, “the mass citizenry, for most issues, simply will not take the time to learn more or understand more deeply, no matter how inexpensive or convenient further learning may be. “

People become interested and involved in politics for a number of reasons — a policy decision that directly affects them, an economic downturn radicalizes them, or they were raised in a family of political activists. The existence of new technology, however, is not one of the main reasons for political interest and involvement.

In fact, the internet may have the opposite effect of diminishing interest in politics. The internet offers more choice than any other communications medium. The number of sites to visit seems endless. There are many other online options than politics, and frankly, most people choose them. Political sites are not among the most popular sites online, although political sites such as or do receive millions of hits. However, their popularity is dwarfed by non-political sites. Less than 40 percent of internet users go online for political news.

Still, the internet has affected politics, but the greatest effect has been and likely will be on people who are most involved in politics already. While arguing whether the internet is expanding political participation, we are missing the real impact of the internet on the interaction between political players. That is what I want to focus on today.

Candidates and the Web

Since this is an election year, let’s focus on one relationship between players — in this case candidates for elective office and their intended recipients, those who might offer support for their campaign. Support ranges from a simple vote to a monetary contribution or involvement as a campaign volunteer. Examining the interaction between candidates and supporters can help us put the internet’s role in perspective as a new tool for political players to communicate with each other.

Not surprisingly, the web does not have a long history in American electoral campaigns. The first major public notice of the web as an electoral tool occurred when Republican candidate Bob Dole used a presidential debate in 1996 to announce his web site and invite voters to view it. Over a million people visited the Dole campaign web site after Dole’s invitation. Many more may have tried but failed because Dole announced the wrong address. In giving out the address, he inadvertently left out a dot.

Dole is not the only recent candidate who has been tripped up trying to understand the internet. The internet seems like a whole new world for candidates. For example: Last year, a parody site appeared on line satirizing George W. Bush. The Bush campaign protested to the Federal Elections Commission. Bush charged that there ought to be some limitations on free speech. In turn, Bush was ridiculed by the internet community. Free speech is the whole point of the internet. Didn’t Bush realize that? Didn’t he know the internet is a freewheeling art form? Governor Bush, and other politicians, now understand that parody candidate sites are a part of the internet and there is nothing they can do about it. Nor had they better try if they want the vote of people who go online.

A Brief History of Web Campaigning

Bob Dole was not the first presidential candidate to use the internet. The first was Bill Clinton. In 1992, the Clinton/Gore campaign had a gopher site (all text, no graphics) that would be very boring by today’s standards. However, it was novel eight years ago — a new way to deliver texts of speeches by the candidates, transcripts of radio ads, and press releases put out by the campaign.

In the 1994 Congressional elections, a few candidates began to post experimental campaign web sites. One example was Tom Campbell, a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in California. Campbell represented Silicon Valley, so his constituents were among the few in the U.S. who were online at that time.

By 1996, all the major party presidential candidates had web sites. Many candidates for U.S. Senate and House seats also created web sites, and more sites were cropping up for races from governor to school board. In 1998, electoral usage of the web crossed an important threshold. In that election, the internet was viewed as important enough that most candidates at the statewide level created web pages. Almost all gubernatorial candidates and seven of ten senatorial candidates used campaign web sites in 1998. This year, all the major party presidential candidates had extensive sites, and few major party candidates in federal elections would be caught without a web site. More importantly, the reasons for going online changed.

The Clinton campaign went online in 1992 as an experiment, and very few voters saw their effort. In 1996, presidential candidates went online to show they were technologically current, although sometimes that effort backfired. For example, when describing his site to a reporter, Bob Dole called it “my whatchamacalit.” At that time, no one knew how many voters were online or whether web sites really affected voters. Presidential candidates in the 2000 election, however, are seeing the web as much more than a billboard. They now realize the internet can be a mechanism for carrying out certain campaign functions.

For example, one of the important functions of campaigns is information dissemination. Candidates disseminate information for a variety of reasons. One is to give undecided voters some reason to support them. Another is to reinforce a previous positive vote decision. For activists, information offers material to use for discussion with others — e.g. candidate Jones supports more higher education funding, so you should vote for him. ” The information candidates disseminate is almost always positive about themselves. It could be about the candidate’s personal characteristics. The candidate can relate to other people. The candidate empathizes with the common person’s plight. The candidate shares the values of the voters. Candidates also take positions on specific issues and use the internet to advertise issue positions and reassure voters that they will represent their views. Finally, candidate sites are used to distribute information about groups, organizations, associations, or prominent individuals endorsing them.

In competitive races, candidates usually feel the need to explain not only why voters should vote for them, but also why they should not vote for their opponent. This latter message, however, is complicated because we call this negative campaigning, and that is supposed to be bad. The press often criticizes candidates for going negative, and voters may punish a candidate who goes negative, depending on the subject or tone of the negativity. On the other hand, candidates continue to go negative because negative campaigns work. The attacks often are remembered by the public, and they really can sow seeds of doubt in the minds of voters.

Because negative attacks online cannot be easily distanced from the candidate when they appear on the candidate’s official web site, candidates so far have been less negative online than in television advertising for example. This doesn’t mean negative campaigning does not exist on the internet. . Instead, it usually exists on supporter sites. These sites can do the dirty work the official site may not be able to do. Candidates allow supporters to carry negative messages on their sites that the candidates themselves don’t want to be associated with.

A campaign function related to campaigning against the opponent is gathering information about the opponent. Campaigns gather opposition research from a variety of sources such as news stories or legislative records. Some of it is policy related information such as legislative vote records and texts of past speeches or press interviews. However, other opponent information may deal more with private issues. These might include former acquaintances with inside information on the opponent’s private life or court records detailing divorce cases or legal action filed against the opponent. The internet has made the task of opposition research easier. For example, now it is possible for candidates to get campaign finance data about opponents from Federal Election Commission records online. It is easier to research an opponent’s public record, particularly if they have held public office. Now, it is easy to collect information on how members of Congress (or, state legislators in many states) have voted on key issues, what bills they sponsored or co-sponsored, and how successful they were in getting bills passed. Of course, all of this information could be gathered in the past, but now a candidate or staff member need not travel farther than the computer to get it.

Still another function of a campaign is to gather volunteers who post those roadside signs, or hang a leaflet on your door handle, or phone you to ask who you are voting for. In the internet age, one might conclude that flesh and blood volunteers are no longer necessary, but that is not so. The web, however, has become a tool for finding volunteers. A common feature of a candidate web site now is the “how you can help” or “get involved” link. Candidates are finding that the best way to get internet users to participate is to involve them online. For example, candidates have created e-precincts. Unlike geographical precincts, such as a certain neighborhood, these are groups of people who are linked together through e-mail. Using group input, the e-precinct captain creates e-mail lists of people who then receive frequent messages from the candidate encouraging their support and eventual vote.

Former Democratic party leader Jesse Unruh once coined the phrase: “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Candidates need money to run campaigns, particularly when broadcast advertising has become so ubiquitous in campaigns from president down to county sheriff.

Since the advent of internet campaigning, candidates have viewed the internet as another means to raise cash. In 1996 and in 1998, candidate web sites included instructions on how people could give money. Usually they would send an email message saying whether and how much they would give, and the campaign would get back in touch with them. Sometimes there simply would be a regular mail address posted on the internet so people would know where to send checks.

For the 2000 election, things have changed. Candidates now can collect money online via credit card transfers, and candidates are raising large sums of money from this process. For example, Bill Bradley raised $1.5 million online. A legitimate question is whether this money would have come in anyway through more traditional means. Some candidates claim that the money is from new voters, but it remains to be seen whether donations to campaigns actually will increase due to the internet.

Candidates spend much of their time “pressing the flesh” by shaking hands, kissing babies, and mingling with the folk. They also participate in debates where voters can question them, and some candidates hold town meetings where they field questions from the public. The internet, where the people can transmit and receive messages, seems tailor-made for such interactivity. Ideally, candidates not only could inform voters, but receive information from voters. Voters could ask questions and get personal messages from candidates.

Candidates do attempt to foster the perception of these types of online interactivity. They go into chat rooms to talk with voters, they answer questions on message boards, and they hold virtual town meetings. However, internet interactivity with candidates is more illusion than reality. Candidates do not personally answer e-mail. They usually do not actually sit at a computer and interact with voters. Very few people actually get in to the chat rooms to ask questions, particularly at the presidential level, and when organized by the candidates, questions are often screened in advance. John McCain’s campaign, for example, actually required potential questioners to donate $100 to the campaign before they could participate in an online chat with the candidate. It is unlikely most people would donate $100 to a campaign unless they were supporters, thus guaranteeing softball questions. Still, candidate sites, email lists, online chats, and other forms of virtual contact do foster the impression that the candidate is interacting with average voters.

A final function of campaigns is voter reinforcement or “get out the vote” drives. All of the preceding functions are useless unless the candidate actually identifies supporters and gets them to the polls. Once a candidate has identified supporters, he or she must keep them committed. The internet can be a highly effective tool in this process. Campaigns can keep nearly daily contact with voters, sending them reinforcement messages, urging their involvement in the campaign, and reminding them to vote on election day. For example, Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes sent messages to 50,000 voters just before the Iowa caucus.Candidates also strive to reinforce voters with daily changing web pages that give voters reason to return to the site frequently.

Voters and the Web

Does growing use of the internet by candidates make a difference? We know voters increasingly are turning to the web for campaign information. In 1996, only two percent of American adults said they got news about the election from the internet, but during the primary season for the 2000 election, 21 percent said they accessed the internet for campaign news. More than one-third of these people said the internet was their primary source for election information. The future can be seen in the number of younger people using the Net for campaign information. While three percent of people over 50 used the internet as their main source of information in the 2000 primary season, nine percent of people under 30 did so.

Still, the question remains: Does this internet information make a difference in vote decisions? The truth is that we don’t know whether vote decisions are affected by candidate web sites. Some voters say they are. In 1998, three in ten people who went to a political web site said they did so to find information about a candidate’s record, making that the top motivation for election news seekers. This suggests a number of voters are using the web to get more information for their vote decision. Moreover, one third of those who sought such information said their vote on Election Day was influenced by information they found on the internet. These data, however, do not tell us whether the sites they were affected by were candidate web sites or other political sites. Still, the data does suggest that the information candidates disseminate to voters online may be important, perhaps in a close race, in determining which candidate actually wins an election.

What of the Future?

We know candidates are using the web to help them win elections. They think it matters. Voters are turning to the web for information and such information may be impacting their vote choices. But what does this mean for the future of American elections?

I suggest it means the internet will become a supplement to traditional campaigning and that some campaign functions may be entirely (or almost entirely) transferred to the web. Just as precinct workers pounding on the door to encourage votes has been replaced by the telephone, so the telephone may be replaced by the internet as the primary get out the vote medium. At the same time, we need to remember what the internet is not. So far it is not a substitute for traditional campaign advertising. Candidates don’t rely merely on those voters who take the time and effort to come to the candidate’s site. They still seek means to push their message onto more passive voters. The internet also is not a tool for levelling the playing field. It is true that all candidates can have a billboard in virtural space, and hypothetically, all candidate messages are equally accessible to the voters. But this doesn’t mean that all candidates are equal in virtual politics. For example, incumbents are advantaged here, just as they are in traditional campaigns. First, they have access to two sites — one government and another for their campaign. Although the government site content is limited by certain rules, the objective of both sites is the same — publicity for the incumbent. Even better, incumbents can use various official means to advertise the government site and receive links from internet sites voters may frequent such as the state government web pages. Incumbents also enjoy the traditional benefit of name recognition in virtual space. Voters find it difficult to remember candidate names for use in search engines, but incumbents are less likely to have this problem.

Another favored type of candidate in virtual politics is the resource-rich candidate. This type usually includes incumbents, but it also pertains to non-incumbents who possess the resources to wage viable campaigns. Resource-rich candidates have the ability to advertise websites in offline advertising; they can educate voters about their web address and invite them to visit their site. Name recognition can also be enhanced in offline advertising, increasing the likelihood that voters will be able to search and find the site. Once voters are there, they may see better graphics, more attractive and extensive content, more appealing will audio and video clips.

For the same reasons, minor party candidates don’t get a level of playing field online. Since voters most likely use the web for voter reinforcement, they probably tend to visit the sites of candidates they affiliate with. In most cases, that would mean the two major party candidates. Likewise, major party candidates receive far more oofline media attention than minor party candidates, and this publicity also translates into more visitations at their web sites.

If we expect the internet to change the political power structure by suddenly activating millions of passive Americans, or by helping elect candidates lesser known candidates, we may be quite disappointed. Changes is not likely to be as dramatic as some have predicted, but the internet will have an impact on how candidates campaign, and how voters glean information about candidates.