Political news sites get users' vote

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"The new soap box"

The Internet played a bigger role than ever in the 2000 elections, but not the pivotal role Internet experts predicted or the financial role candidates hoped.

Web users flocked to political sites in record numbers, but political news sites—not candidate sites—attracted the most attention, according to analysis by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

News sites, many sponsored by major print and TV news organizations, offered frequently updated campaign news and much of the detailed information that Web users wanted—when they wanted it. As a result, sites carrying news were swamped during key campaign points, such as during the primaries, the debates and throughout the prolonged vote-counting in Florida.

Candidates' Web sites, by contrast, offered voters little of what they wanted, according to Steven Schneider, an Annenberg researcher and editor of the center's NetElection Web site.

Surveys of more than 1,700 "Web enthusiasts" indicate that most Web users want information that compares one candidate with another. However, only 12 percent of candidates' Web sites offered such comparisons.

Annenberg researchers defined "Web enthusiasts" as Web users who frequently seek political information on the Internet.

A third of the enthusiasts said they wanted candidates to identify who is financing their campaigns, but only 3 percent of campaign Web sites included information on the sources of campaign funding.

However, 60 percent of campaign Web sites offered viewers a chance to donate money online.

About half of the candidates posted press releases on their Web sites, and 13 percent included speeches. Only 3 percent provided places on their sites for discussion of issues.

"What people got was sound bites exported to the Web," Schneider said. However, what they wanted was more in-depth information on issues and details on candidates' backgrounds, he said.

Among those running for House seats, 54 percent had campaign Web sites. The number was higher in Senate races, where 77 percent of candidates campaigned on the Internet. One prominent candidate who did not have a campaign Web site, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), said he preferred campaigning door-to-door, Schneider reported.

Many candidates developed "lofty expectations" about fund-raising on the Internet after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) raised a half-million dollars in a matter of hours following his New Hampshire primary victory, said campaign Web site designer Jeff Stanger.

For most, the Web's fund-raising power in 2000 proved disappointing, said Stanger, who spoke when Annenberg unveiled its survey findings Jan. 10. After McCain's experience, "candidates were not interested in spending a lot of money on their Web sites—they just wanted them to make money," he said. "Their attitude was, "If I build it, they will contribute.'" Many candidates overlooked the fact that McCain's windfall followed his surprise New Hampshire victory.

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