This time, the Internet is making a difference.
By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (email@example.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.
Munching a turkey sandwich in front of his laptop on July 28, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean saw that his three-day online fundraiser had reeled in more than $500,000, shooting past the total for the $2,000-a-plate luncheon Dick Cheney hosted the same day. Add that figure to the $5 million in online contributions collected by late July, plus more than 100,000 supporters registered with MeetUp.com to lead and attend Dean gatherings, and the case is made: The Internet will matter in 2004.
Yes, the Net also mattered in 1996, 2000 and the midterm elections in between, but mainly as a convenient resource for reporters and a last-minute primer for voters. With a few notable exceptions (such as Jesse Ventura's 1998 run for Minnesota governor and John McCain's post-New Hampshire online fundraising flurry in 2000), neither the media nor the campaigns behaved as though online stumping could turn an election.
This time, however, the politicians and the press seem to believe the Internet could actually make a difference in the sustained, mobilizing, money-raising, vote-getting sense. The spotlight is on Dean now, but the entire pack of 2004 candidates is putting on a good show. Months before primary season, their Web sites are already bursting with daily bulletins, snapshots from the campaign trail and invitations to donate, sign up, get involved. If the early interest is any indication, people will.
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 8 percent of the online population visited candidate Web sites during the 2000 race. With a much larger potential audience this year, reporters need to start looking at those sites as more than press release repositories. They are a direct line of communication between candidates and voters. If the candidates are ready to treat the Web as a primary medium for their messages, the media should be prepared to cover it that way.
That means looking past the novelty of a folksy campaign journal and scrutinizing a site's content. In a 2002 report published by the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, author Albert L. May suggests that "Web watches" may soon become as common as today's "ad watches" in which journalists investigate the veracity of campaign ads. (The full report, "The Virtual Trail," is available at www.ipdi.org.) Tracking the online campaign is old territory for many online news sites, but seldom have those stories made print or broadcast news. In the Internet era, all audiences ought to know how a candidate handles his or her virtual campaign.
Does the candidate's site make claims that contradict his or her voting record or other public statements? Does the site present all of the candidate's campaign advertisements--or only the positive, non-attack ads? If the site contains financial information, does it jibe with the Federal Election Commission's reports? Is personal information submitted to the site kept private, or shared with other organizations? If the site offers campaign journals or Weblogs, who writes them? (Dean's Weblog is mostly maintained by volunteers and staffers; despite the hype, the candidate rarely makes a personal appearance.)
In addition to monitoring the candidates' activities, the online media should take a good look at their campaign coverage. According to Pew, for example, e-polls rank among the favorite online activities of election news consumers--yet in previous campaigns, we've seen that the results of online polls often don't correlate to those of scientific polls. And consider how a networked mob of enthusiastic supporters for a particular candidate could skew an online survey.
Most important, the media will be obliged to do an even better job of what they've done all along: provide the information, analysis and decision-making tools the candidates won't. While voters can tap position statements and rhetoric at the source, news sites should tell us whether the candidates' actions measure up to their words. They should help us track the money, dissect the ads and follow the promises.
The full-scale entry of campaigns and grassroots movements onto the Web has the potential to change political communication and participation in this country. Despite legitimate concerns about the wealthier, whiter demographics of the online population, Web campaigns are already reaching people who didn't get involved before. They can unite scattered voices into potent forces and expand the 30-second sound bite that typifies modern campaigning. They are also vulnerable to the same old manipulations we see in other media, and probably some new ones.
Whether or not the Web makes a clear difference in the 2004 vote--and even if Howard Dean's virtual juggernaut turns out to be a flash in the pan--the way campaigns are waged and covered is about to change.###