Jefferson Meets the Jetsons: The Web of Politics

2004-07-15

With each passing day, technology is changing the landscape of our lives — including the very ways we work, live, learn and play. With Internet use growing at an incredible rate in the United States (approximately 2 million new users each month), the political arena is no exception. Yes, folks — we are entering the Jefferson-meets-the Jetsons era. In fact, this is the third Presidential cycle for the Internet Age.

Internet campaigning began in 1992 when Jerry Brown, former California governor and Democratic candidate for president, conducted an email campaign. And over the past decade, the Internet has continued to be a highly effective tool for global distribution of political information. In the United States, email has become an increasingly popular and potent tool for political communication — in fact, two-thirds of the politically engaged Internet users sent or received campaign-related email in the 2002 election cycle. And the number of Americans who used the Internet to obtain political news and information grew 39 percent between the summer of 2000 and the 2002 midterm election, from 33 million to 46 million. Therefore, it is no understatement to say that the number of citizens turning to the Internet to learn more about political issues and candidates is only on the rise.

In 2004, Howard Dean’s use of the Internet pushed the door open for furthering the use of technology to transform the traditional political process. The Internet makes finding volunteers, soliciting contributions, and building a following easier, while at the same time creating opportunities for new ideas and new candidates. It also addresses a key complaint about the US political system — lack of participation, especially by young people. By using the Internet, people become better informed about issues and candidates through a medium that is easy to use and tailored to their information needs. Effectiveness, you ask? Well, Dean raised $19 million in online contributions, fueling his early lead in the Democratic primaries. And according to a study conducted by the Center for Survey and Research Analysis at the University of Connecticut, voters who use the Internet, regardless of party affiliation, are highly engaged with politics online. The research showed that 68 percent of voters who use the Internet are likely to research a candidate’s position online. The finding was relatively consistent across party lines — with Democrats at 57 percent, Republicans at 68 percent, and Independents at 59 percent. I would say that’s pretty effective.

And economically, it’s a no-brainer. Dean’s entire Internet outlay, including salaries, was approximately $1 million. That equates to almost a dollar return for every nickel spent. Not to mention that online fundraising also takes no time from the candidate, and it brings in a slew of small contributors who don’t expect return favors.

Generally, candidates are using the Internet for generating support, promoting connections among partisans, rallying participants for campaign events, informing the public on positions, and encouraging contributions. Though still primarily a grass-roots medium, candidates are obtaining high visibility on the Web through the use of an array of official and unofficial Web sites, email lists, discussion groups, instant messaging, Google and Yahoo ads, and blogs. And thanks to the Internet, no one has to be an uninformed or silent citizen — it fosters activism, informs the public on issues and facts, serves as a watchdog, allows individuals to have a prominent voice, and reaches young citizens.

Now, let’s walk through who is at the forefront of mixing technology and politics. To start, the following illustrates the growth in Internet-based activist groups (also deemed the most innovative), spanning all political viewpoints and constituencies:

  • EMILY’s List (www.emilyslist.org), the nation’s largest grassroots political network that supports candidates from a feminist, liberal perspective
  • RightMarch.com, an umbrella Web site for conservative organizations that features news coverage and action items
  • MoveOn.org, a broad-based network of more than 1.7 million liberal activists who are working to involve more citizens in government
  • Rock the Vote (www.rockthevote.com), a celebrity-supported effort aimed at promoting voter registration among young citizens
  • MeetUp (www.meetup.com), a nonpartisan Web site with more than 1 million members that allows activists to meet online or in person to share their interests.

With the following nonpartisan sites providing access to reams of relevant data about every step of the electoral process, we have no excuse for being ill-informed:

  • Project Vote Smart (www.vote-smart.org), a comprehensive campaign site that maintains a national library of factual information about candidates and elected officials
  • The Green Papers (www.thegreenpapers.com), a site dedicated to delivering facts about primaries and caucuses for the presidential, senatorial, and congressional races of major and minor parties in each state in the US
  • SelectSmart.com (www.selectsmart.com/president), an online questionnaire that takes the guesswork out of voting by offering a candidate whose views best match yours based on 17 issues and their level of priority.

What if we want to know who’s the Warbucks, the following reveals the sources of support for various candidates:

  • Follow the Money (www.followthemoney.org), a site produced by the nonpartisan Institute on Money in State Politics, allows visitors to examine searchable databases of campaign contributions and spending by state, givers, and recipients
  • OpenSecrets.org, a site produced by the Center for Responsive Politics, offers detailed historical comparisons of political contributions from sectors in the economy and industries within each sector
  • Political Money Line (www.tray.com), a site that covers news on the interaction of lobbyists and candidates in presidential and congressional elections, including campaign expenditures for media, polling, and consulting.

And let’s not forget blogs. Web logs, or blogs, are simply Web pages made up of usually short, frequently updated posts that are arranged chronologically — sort of like an instant messaging (IM) system that can be preserved, archived, searched, and easily accessed.Blogs are proving powerful because they feed information-hungry people via posts, provide a platform for those with opinions, and give a sense of immediacy and involvement to those who may be limited by such factors as geography or age. Some of the most popular include:

  • Senator Kerry's official blog (blog.johnkerry.com) offers contributions from citizens and further encourages participation in the blog community by allowing visitors to post comments to entries.
  • President Bush’s official blog (www.georgebush.com/blog) offers contributions from hundreds of citizens.
  • Howard Dean’s blog (www.blogforamerica.com) is credited with helping build his following and has become a gathering point for serious discussion on national issues.
  • AccordingtoAlexa.com, the Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com), and lies.com are the most popular, progressive left-wing blogs.

Though traditional media is still more influential than the Internet when it comes to shaping public opinion, the candidates are realizing the true potential for galvanizing their campaigns online. They are beginning to understand the Internet — and are working to harness its potential as a fundraising, organizing, community-building, marketing, and get-out-the-vote mechanism. And for Joe or Jane Citizen, the Internet is providing an entry point to help people get involved and engaged in the election — and for many, it has the added bonus of being fun. Suffice it to say, the Internet will be indispensable to elections.