On the Virtual Campaign Trail
Many political pundits believe that Jesse Ventura did for the Internet what John F. Kennedy did for TV almost 40 years earlier.
In 1960, as he began his first presidential debate, Kennedy appeared the perfect picture of good health. The Massachusetts senator was battling to win one of the closest-matched presidential elections in years against an opponent, Richard
Nixon, who exceeded him in experience and name recognition. But on this night, as the tanned and relaxed Kennedy stood next to a pale, sweating Nixon, he suddenly appealed to voters as true presidential material, nearly bursting through the screen with energy and ideas. Within weeks, the handsome 43-year-old grandson of Irish immigrants had defeated Nixon by a slim margin, a victory that political experts still attribute largely to Kennedy's telegenic charisma.
The age of TV had arrived in political circles, inspiring candidates eventually to spend millions on prime time commercials and to work as hard at perfecting their sound bites as their rally speeches.
Flash forward to 1998 and the next technological quantum leap for politicians. Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler with a back-to-basics message, runs for governor of Minnesota on the Reform Party ticket. He flouts conventional election trail wisdom by relying heavily on a World Wide Web site and e-mail to attract and communicate with voters and to organize volunteers.
Although his two opponents also had Web sites, they used them more as glitzy electronic billboards to advertise their names. Ventura and his staff, on the other hand, used a simple, text-based Web site to go truly virtual, staying in touch with voters though e-mail, soliciting donations and volunteers, organizing campaign stops, and seeking and getting the votes of
Internet-savvy political neophytes in their late teens and 20s.
"We didn't even have a campaign office until late in the campaign, and that was really only a distribution site for our T-shirts, which were selling like hot cakes," said Phil Madsen, Webmaster for Ventura's campaign. "We relied totally on the Internet and cellular phones. It was a virtual campaign headquarters."
Ventura's Internet tactics made a difference on Election Day, when he won with 37 percent of the vote, 3 percent of which was attributed to his use of the Web site. "We didn't win the election because of the Internet, but without the Internet we would not have won," Madsen said.
Like his colleagues, Ventura spent plenty of time glad-handing potential voters, sending out direct mail and paying for expensive TV ads to ensure his win. But Ventura likely will go down in history as the man who drastically changed the nature of campaigning.
The Future Is Now
Just a year after Ventura's success, the idea of electronic campaigning is no longer a novelty. Nearly all politicians planning a run for office in 2000, as well as many of the local candidates running in mayoral and state legislative races in 1999, are using Web sites and using tactics from the Ventura playbook.
Take, for example, Paul Harris, a Republican Virginia delegate from Charlottesville who is defending his seat for the first time. Harris' campaign efforts include a Web site at www.gopaul.org. The site features biographical information, an issues forum, information on campaign stops and opportunities for citizens to volunteer, make donations and e-mail the candidate with questions and comments.
Harris, who still spends most of his time campaigning door to door and pressing the flesh, said that although he had high expectations, the contribution of his Web site, launched in August, has amazed him. The number of e-mail messages have quadrupled, a few hundred volunteers-mostly students from the University of Virginia-have signed up online, and the campaign has even received a couple of hundred dollars via credit card donations online.
"It only adds to what we already have in terms of an existing grass-roots base," Harris said. "And it's extremely cost-effective."
Political consultants are not surprised. They are pushing candidates to move quickly into cyberspace on the belief that the impact of the Web on elections will only grow.
"The beauty of the Web and the Internet generally is that everybody is suddenly at a level playing field," political consultant Doug Boxer said.
"With the Web, there's no barrier to access like you have with traditional media where a candidate has to raise tens and hundreds of thousands and sometimes even millions of dollars to run a political campaign and win," Boxer said. "But a Web site can cost as little as a couple of hundred dollars to put up, and you can put out the same message that you're putting out on a television commercial. And, in fact, you have the potential to reach even more people."
An effective Web campaign still requires marketing, because candidates have to drum their URLs, along with their names, into voter consciousness, Boxer said.
But if candidates can get people to surf to their sites, the new resource can add plenty of value to a campaign, from the national level down to the smallest locality.
That value, political experts say, is not to be found in glossy graphics and gimmicky features-like the "Just for Kids" section at AlGore2000.com-but in using the Web as an organizational tool.
"The biggest lesson that can be taken from the Ventura story is that you can't judge a campaign by its Web site," said Michael Cornfield, an associate research professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management who is heading a two-year study on the Web's impact on local elections. "Because the main purpose of a Web site is to take people who are curious enough to come to your site and then convert them into volunteers and donors."
Already, candidates for the 1999 and 2000 elections have seen the power of the Web along these two fronts. Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who's trying to earn the Democratic nomination for president, had taken in $500,000 in credit card donations through his Web site (billbradley.com) as of the end of September, while MoveOn.org, a political portal site raising funds to defeat vulnerable incumbents who voted for President Clinton's impeachment, has cultivated more than $300,000 on its Web site.
At the local level, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and Sam Katz, the Republican candidate for mayor of Philadelphia, have recruited hundreds of volunteers through the Web. They have used these virtual campaign workers to lead "e-precincts" of e-mail addresses, track media coverage, send out fund-raising appeals to friends and family, or e-mail letters to editors.
Still, the candidates say the Web plays only a small role in recruitment, and the impact of these campaign workers can be muted, particularly at the local level.
P.J. Johnson, Brown's press secretary, said that most of the Democratic mayor's volunteer base is found in communities of color and among low-income populations, most of whom do not even have access to a computer, much less the Internet. "It's just not going to be a major source of volunteers or even voter contact for us," Johnson said. "We've found that campaigning is still best done door to door, person to person."
Still, the Web site does offer the ability to develop a "friendly file" of e-mail addresses of volunteers, financial contributors and general supporters, opening up a valuable channel of communication.
"If you can actually get people to come in and sign in and leave their e-mail addresses, that can be extremely valuable to a local politician," said George Strong, a Houston-based political consultant. A politician can get a lot more mileage out of communicating directly with a targeted list of supporters rather than simply mailing out a newsletter to everyone in a district, he said.
Johnson noted that the most popular section of the reelectwilliebrown.com site has been "Ask Willie Brown," a feature that encourages voters to question the candidate.
"It's a chance for direct interaction between the mayor and the voters, and that has a lot of appeal," Johnson said.
The ability to communicate his message to potential voters is crucial, particularly because races often get little coverage in local media outlets until the eve of the election, Virginia's Harris said.
"We can define the issues for voters, and we can hopefully contact a population of voters that haven't been participants in the process with our message undiluted and unfiltered by the media," Harris said.
Indeed, one of the lessons of the Ventura campaign was that young voters who have never before voted can be inspired to catch political fever through this medium. Of the 61 percent of Minnesota voters who turned out for the governor's election, 16 percent were new registrants, and Ventura captured 75 percent of those voters, according to exit polls.
A More Engaged Electorate?
Ultimately, political observers say, the impact of the Internet on the political process will make for a more informed electorate-and that bodes well for everybody.
"Our whole basis of democracy is based on an informed electorate," Strong said. "You can't go wrong when voters know their minds and know what they want. It's the uninformed voter who votes on party lines and on name recognition that cause political consultants like me to have nervous breakdowns."
With a new online library of political data, voters not only have a chance to understand a candidate's position on issues, but they have access to updates and analysis developed by other sources.
For example, voters can get on e-mail lists of online political magazines such as the Political Insider, Political Resources and the Political Net. Or they can visiting independent sites such as Project Vote Smart and Web, White and Blue that offer insightful and comparative information on candidates, including the issues involved in a particular race, voting records of candidates and candidates' answers to a Web-based questionnaire.
In fact, this comparative information-kind of an electronic version of the voting guides put out by newspapers and advocacy groups before an election-may have the biggest impact on the undecided.
"It's going to be a big change in perception for most voters, the realization that they don't have to go to one candidate site and then the other to compare points of view," Cornfield said. "Instead, they can go to one site and do comparison shopping the way they already do when looking for the best air fare or the best price on a book."
But don't expect politics to go totally virtual over-night or even by the end of next year, said Cornfield, who noted that candidates still will send out letters and make campaign stops.
"Politics is still personal, and it's still risk averse," he said. "Our culture encourages people to take chances in learning things and in selling things, but we don't like risks when it comes to our shared future and our political institutions. The change will come, but by some optical illusion, [the use of cyberspace] will appear sluggish in comparison to education and commerce."
Rest assured, observers say, politics and politicians will fully embrace the Internet much quicker than it did its big-sister technology, TV.
-- Heather Hayes is a free-lance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va.
Ultimately, some political insiders see another role for the Internet in the election process: a high-tech personal voting booth.
In that scenario, citizens will simply log on to the Web and double-click their way to a new breed of democracy, one in which voters will be better informed and more likely to participate on Election Day because of the convenience of the Internet.
But a number of hurdles makes remote Internet voting impractical right now.
"The technology is there to use the Internet to vote," said Alfie Charles, a spokesperson for the California Secretary of State's Office. "But there are a lot of complex demands required of the voters that would be so difficult to deal with that you'd lose some of the value of the convenience that you're looking for."
The challenge lies in making sure that each voter has one vote and that the vote be kept secret. Election officials still would have to request a ballot in writing to compare a voter's signature to the paper registration card, for example. And Internet service providers would have to find some way to prevent electioneering on Web browsers while the actual on-line voting is taking place.
Such a system also requires instilling voter trust in the security and privacy of any Internet based system. "If privacy or security were compromised, if a system was rushed into development and holes were left in the system, either intentionally or unintentionally, that would really set remote Internet voting back a long ways," Charles said.
That said, Internet voting at polling sites has arrived just in time for the Year 2000 elections. VoteHere.net, a Kirkland, Wash.-based security firm, has developed a voting system that enables people to cast votes online at a polling site.
Florida and Iowa have certified the system for statewide elections next year, and Arizona will use it to determine the winners of next year's Democratic caucus. California is considering a test run of the system in San Diego and San Mateo counties.
For election officials, the reasons for going to an Internet-based system has little to do with novelty. The VoteHere Election System-which relies on 1,024-bit public-key data encryption, digital signatures, and monitoring and countermeasuring to provide what company officials insist is foolproof security-enables counties to integrate the four election processes: registration, authentication, voting and tabulation.
"At present, there's no automated way to get data from one process to the next, so you can't, for example, guarantee that the person who registered is indeed the person who was authenticated or who cast the vote," said Don Carter, executive vice president for VoteHere.net. Carter said that 70 percent of election fraud, whereby dead people, illegal aliens, and even pets have somehow been allowed to cast a vote, occurs during the registration and authentication process. "It's a very disconnected form of voting that we have today."
The fact that the Internet-based system can connect all the parts could add up to considerable savings for counties and states. At present, large states such as California spend $15 per vote. Carter said that the new election system drops that price to less than $5 a vote. In counties where traditional voting methods might cost $7 a vote, the VoteHere.net fee comes in at less than $3 a vote.
Carter expects other states to jump on board in the near future, noting that in all cases, only testing and certification is required to allow it to happen. For remote Internet voting, however, 47 states would have to pass legislation.
-- Heather Hayes