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.)

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