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Net Politics '04: Proving Pundits Wrong

Shortly after the 2000 presidential election, the non-partisan political Web site Voter.com went belly up, taking tens of millions of venture capital with it.

Similar sites like Vote.com and Politics.com also tanked, prompting political pundits and private capital alike to discount the Internet's future in the electoral process.

Four years later, as Americans go the polls to select the next president of the United States and settle local elections, the political Internet has self-healed itself to wield its greatest influence so far in the medium's brief, 10-year history.

Presidential candidate Howard Dean raised more money more quickly than any other candidate in history through his Web site. The Dean online approach energized his supporters beyond political professionals' wildestexpectations. Web-driven meet-ups, online discussion groups and e-mail campaigns became the rave of all candidate sites.

Concurrently, political blogs began to emerge as energizers for voting bases, swapping rumors and second-guessing the traditional media coverage, ultimately leading to the public embarrassing of CBS. To the bloggers delight, their posts are becoming must reading for those same pundits who had so recently written off the Internet.

JibJab.com's "This Land" spoof skewering both President Bush and John Kerry became a phenomenon. Months after raising all that money over the Internet, Dean discovered the downside of Internet instant information power: media clips of his now infamous "scream" during the Democratic presidential primary moved over the Web faster than peer-to-peer music.

As a recent report by The George Washington University's (GWU) Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet said, "The 2004 campaign has been an example of the power of a few ideas and trends pushing out the old ideas."

Broadband Users Embrace Online Political News

"The 2000 presidential election was heady with the prospect of online political information engaging more citizens more actively," The GWU report said. "Commentators predicted we were on the cusp of great change, where political power in America would rest with the people, educated and mobilized on the Internet."

The report said it was widely predicted that "The influence of consultants, professional campaigners and political elites" would wane.

Instead, the political operatives and fundraisers stepped into the void left by the nonpartisan sites. Traffic never looked south.

"Nearly four years later, instead of a means to educate or engage more citizens, the Internet in American politics is a vehicle to mobilize party activities and collect their money," the report claims.

It also points out that online activism has grown "dramatically." That growth, in turn, is spawning a new boutique industry to provide database management, multimedia productions and other support services to candidate, partisan and activist sites.

The heavily partisan tone of the 2004 digital campaign has already led some to again dismiss the Internet influence, claiming it is all just so much preaching to political choirs. The Pew Internet & American Life Project thinks otherwise.

"At a time when political deliberation seems extremely partisan and when people may be tempted to ignore arguments at odds with their views, Internet users are not insulating themselves in information echo chambers," a recent Pew report states. "Instead, they are exposed to more political arguments than non-users' Internet users are not limiting their information exposure to views that buttress their opinions."

Rather, according to the report, "Wired Americans are more aware than non-Internet users of all kinds of arguments, even those that challenge their preferred candidates and issue positions."

The Pew findings show that 31 percent of U.S. broadband users "turn" to the Internet as their main source of campaign news, just behind newspapers at 35 percent. Only 16 percent of narrowband users consider the Internet as their main source of news. As a "primary" source of election news for Internet users, television still dominates at 72 percent.

"People are using the Internet to broaden their political horizons, not narrow them," said report co-writer Kelly Garrett of the University of Michigan, which released the report Oct. 27. "Use of the Internet doesn't necessarily diminish partisanship, or even zealotry. But it does expose online Americans to more points of view, and, on balance, that is a good thing."

Pew Director Lee Rainie recently told Jupitermedia's ClickZ: "So this notion that everyone is organizing their lives only to get information that reinforces what they already believe isn't borne out by just the media preferences that people talk about. It's a stunning finding, and fits in with this larger story that Americans are hardly shying away from things they disagree with."

Controversial 527s Find Home on the Web

Campaigns and bloggers weren't the only ones cashing in on the Internet this time around. The controversial 527 organizations have had a huge part to play in the online media melee, if the traffic going to their Web sites is any indication.

During the third week of August, the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" Web site garnered 483,000 unique visitors, according to Nielsen//NetRatings, and during the same period a site called ScaryJohnKerry.com brought in 410,000. Other 527 sites enjoying massive influxes include Townhall.com, Freerepublic.com and Moveon.org, according to analytics company Hitwise.

These properties are in some cases beating the traffic numbers reported by the candidates themselves. While John Kerry's site for that same week (ending August 22) soared to 648,000, the Bush/Cheney site maxed out at 428,000.

How did people hear about these sites? In many cases through TV and radio spots, as was the case with the SwiftVets.com onslaught. And Hitwise reports surfers in many battleground states comprise the lion's share of the traffic to the candidates' Web pages, perhaps driven online by broadcast spots.

For all of that, fairly little money has been spent on online advertising by the campaigns themselves. While no precise information is available on the presidential candidates' online budgets, it's not a lot. Of the more than $1 billion dollars that will be spent on political advertising this campaign season, strategists agree only a tiny fraction has gone online. Online spending is up over the 2002 campaign season, and way up over 2000, but it's still not commanding big marketing dollars.

All of which will probably lead those savvy pundits to again guess wrong about the Internet's influence on the 2004 election.

(Material from Jupitermedia's ClickZ contributed to this story.)