The surfing majority? Candidates expand presence online

New research finds Web campaigns trying to capitalize on an increasingly wired society.

This is the point in the election cycle where, to figure out who to support for president, the uncommitted voter would have once had to tromp through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, attend coffee klatches, and listen to endless speeches at American Legion halls and chambers of commerce. But no longer.

Now, all you have to do is click on the likes of www.JohnKerry.com and www.dickgephardt2004.com to get a full view of the candidates. On the GOP side, the Republican National Committee maintains www.georgewbush.com. Among the Democrats, there's www.deanforamerica.com (for presidential hopeful Howard Dean) and www.joe2004.com (for Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman). There's even www.draftgore.com for netizens urging the former vice president to run again.

"The Web is changing the way campaigns run," says Kirsten Foot, a communications professor and principal investigator for a new study on Internet campaigning released today. Whereas television launched an era of political sound bites, the study says, the Web is pushing candidates toward the interactive megabyte.

Internet campaigning is seeping into international politics, too. Pundits credit a South Korean website for helping elect reformer Roh Moo Hyun in the recent presidential election. Closer to home, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades - the Berkeley, Calif., couple who brought you the flying-toasters screen saver - collected thousands of dollars over the Internet to buy a TV ad protesting US policy in Iraq. And in the cyberspace equivalent of stealing his opponent's yard signs, one Denver pol bought rivals' domain names to try to keep them off the Web.

A new whistle-stop campaign

"What interactive websites do is what television took away from political campaigning," says S. Shyam Sundar, associate professor of communications and codirector of the Media Effects Research Lab at Penn State. "It's like a re-creation of the old whistle-stop campaign."

Already in last year's midterm elections, candidates were figuring out how to meet and greet in cyberspace. More than three-quarters of candidates for US Senate, House, and governors' seats used the Web to document their stands on at least three issues, according to a new study by Professor Foot of the University of Washington and Steven Schneider of the State University of New York Institute of Technology. Two-thirds of Senate and half of House websites allowed contributions.

More than 20 percent of the sites allowed Web surfers to mobilize others - up from 5 percent in 2000. Such Web pages helped voters write to local newspapers, send campaign "e-cards" to friends, and download candidates' screen savers, yard signs, and bumper stickers. Look for more cyberspace efforts to turn voters into active campaigners, Foot says: "As we move toward 2004, we think that's where the most activity is going to be." Her study, which analyzed websites from all 505 contests for House, Senate and governorships, is being presented at today's opening of the Library of Congress's Election 2002 Web Archive.

www.mypolitics.com

The key, experts say, is interactivity that's easy to use. The more a voter can interact with a candidate's site, the more attractive the contender will seem, says Professor Sundar of Penn State University. In research published last month, he set up three websites for a fictional candidate. Students responded best when the candidate's site was interactive and easy to navigate.

And just as Internet users can personalize sites like Yahoo into "My Yahoo," so they'll be able to customize sites of, say, the Democratic National Committee, Sundar predicts: "It would be 'MyDNC.com, MyBush.com.'"

Already in 2000, Bush's site boasted some customization with a calculator that allowed voters to plug in their incomes and find out how much money they might save under his tax plan. Expect even more for 2004.

But whether such interactivity can boost citizens' interest - and pull voter participation out of the snowdrifts - remains to be seen.

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