By: Charles Bowen
Since the mid-1990s, we wired journalists have been predicting that any day now politicians would be bringing their campaigns to the Web in a big way. And in truth, each campaign does get a little more Net savvy.
As early as 1996 we even witnessed Bob Dole reciting his presidential campaign’s Web site address in public. The event prompted columnist Dave Barry to snicker at the sight of the senior Republican saying “org” on national TV.
But even with such landmark events, we have to wonder if candidates are ready to really engage the Net community or — as Dr. David Lytel, Internet specialist in the Clinton White House, feared seven years ago — they just want to “borrow the image the modernity that the Net conveys.”
Well, maybe this will be the year of the Web’s political awakening. A new site is in place to document it if it happens. Called PoliticalWeb.info, the site promises weekly reports on how many campaigns are using the Web. More importantly, the site also will look at the way this medium is being used to get political messages across.
The site is produced by researchers at the Center for Communications and Civic Engagement at the University of Washington and at the SUNY Institute of Technology. Backers say the site is part of a broader project to investigate the role of the Internet in current elections. The work is sponsored by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Send your political staff to have a look at http://www.politicalweb.info/, where the frequently updated site tracks what it calls “the U.S. electoral Web sphere,” including the emergence of campaign sites. Tabs along the top of each screen in the site let you navigate for assorted departments, including a “This Week” area for latest additions, “Press” for the site’s press releases, and “Research” where the site promises to add links to useful political Web tools.
At this writing, the opening screen included an interesting bar graph tracking the percentage of campaigns in the House, Senate, and gubernatorial races with Web sites, with breakouts on incumbents and challengers. The data — original with the site and based on analysis of some 1,800 candidates — indicated that 63% of candidates in those races already had Web sites up as of Aug. 8. House and Senate incumbents were much more likely than their challengers to have launched Web sites, while gubernatorial challengers were more likely than incumbent governors to have active sites.
Operated by assistant communications professor Kirsten Foot and associate political science professor Steven Schneider, the site also promises to look below the surface of those numbers. For example, the researchers have found that “relatively few campaigns have tapped the potential of the Internet to stimulate political action on or through their sites,” using techniques such as electronic campaign kits, systems to individualize site content to each user’s personal preferences, interactive polls, or real-time online campaign events.
Other political sites you might want to add to your online tool belt for use in the coming campaign:
1. With Political Money Line (http://www.tray.com/FECInfo), Tony Raymond, who spent 17 years on staff with the Federal Election Commission, has created a free, data-packed site that lets you quickly look up campaign contributions back to 1993.
2. Project Vote Smart (http://www.vote-smart.org) is a straight-shooting, nonpartisan political site that can bring you up to speed on a wide variety of political races in no time. It offers information on voting histories, campaign contributions, public positions, and performance evaluations by special interests, biographical data, and contact information.
3. Polling Report newsletter (http://pollingreport.com) for 15 years has served campaign consultants, political reporters, lobbyists, and professional politicians with reports on the latest surveys. It covers trends on health care, taxation, welfare, education, environmental policy, and the day’s other major issues.