From big parties to little guys, big votes for online politics
By Eileen O'Connor
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- There are seven journalists for every delegate attending the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, by my calculations. There will be just as many, or more, given the traveling presidential press corps, at the Democratic shindig in Los Angeles.
That is a lot of competition to fill column inches and air time. Skeptics might say that never have so many come to see so few say so little. Yet the Republicans and Democrats also have their own writers and cameras to record it all -- for the Internet.
The Web, some political consultants say, is the latest way politicians can "beat the press." Have some news to release? Put it out the way you want to, on your own Web site.
For instance, at RNC.org recently, "Tax hike Al" was "scaring seniors first" with his criticism of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's proposed changes to the Social Security system. Meanwhile, over at DNC.org, the site suggests "four hundred thousand Texans struggle in poverty while Governor Bush is missing in action." Talk about "spin city."
The Republicans are offering convention Webcasts and the Democrats are planning to. The sites also include, straight from the parties themselves, details on their records and positions on the issues. The sites are even available in Spanish.
"We're offering a complete, unfiltered view throughout the convention without any kind of talking heads," said Kerry Colpitts, Internet consultant for the Republican National Committee. Hey, watch it! They could be talking us "talking heads" out of our jobs.
The Internet is the ultimate spin machine, according to Mike McCurry, former White House press secretary for President Clinton. It allows candidates to release their own messages their own way directly to the voters.
"Right now it is a way to spread your message and talk to voters, but eventually it is going to be a principal way for a candidate to communicate back and forth with a concerned citizen," McCurry said.
McCurry is on the board of Grassroots.com, a company that sells technical support and advice to politicians and political movements that want to organize on the Web.
The Internet is the ultimate spin machine, says former White House press secretary Mike McCurry. It allows candidates to release their messages directly to the voters.
He said he believes the current campaign Web sites will be seen as primitive in the future. "They're mostly PR vehicles."
Still, public relations is important for raising money and voter awareness.
At the Republican site recently, the fundraising objective was obvious: a little box popped up that said, "Click here to contribute to the RNC."
This week, a popup says, "The Future President wants to see you -- Click here." You can fill out a form to be e-mailed when Bush is in your area. And you can still donate -- the "Donate" button flashes front and center in the navigation.
The Democrats' site also solicits money, of course -- "Contribute" is as plain as blue and white in the navigation.
The site also touts an "Interactive Democratic Platform," where visitors can contribute ideas on issues in the party's platform. Those who e-mail suggestions are promised a personalized thank-you signed by Vice President Al Gore.
The beauty of the Internet is its reach, McCurry said. "It replaces the shoe leather in the good old door-to-door canvassing that used to be politics of the past."
The McCain magic
John McCain may be the candidate who to date has gained the most by working the Internet.
"We knew when we started the campaign that we were going to run an insurgent campaign, and that meant we had to use cost-effective ways to communicate with people and find money, you know, actually raise it," said Rick Davis, campaign manager for McCain2000.
Davis said the campaign was shocked at the response to its online efforts. Some 200,000 people registered with the campaign online. Many volunteered.
"We didn't have county chairmen and statewide leaders on our side, so we literally used people off the Web to be organizational heads," Davis said.
Instead of licking envelopes, volunteers were asked to send e-mails to friends, said Max Fose, Internet manager for McCain2000.com.
"We always ask people to, you know, look at your joke list, and send John McCain's message to people that are in your in-box," Fose said.
McCain's use of the Internet to spread the word was critical in helping make him "the one to beat" against Bush in the primaries, according to a number of political consultants.
In addition, the Web was critical in keeping the campaign going financially. McCain2000 raised $7 million on the Internet, keeping the campaign viable through Super Tuesday.
Davis said future campaigns may well be based on the Internet. "Where people go is where campaigns have to go, and if they are going to the Web, we have to follow."
The Internet's opportunities for constant dialogue and wide reach also lend vitality to political movements.
The Heritage Forests Campaign used consultants at Grassroots.com to help design an Internet campaign to preserve forests around the country.
Ourforests.org got Clinton's attention, according to its communications director Kelly O'Neil, after people sent an estimated 200,000 "e-postcards" to the White House through the organization's Web site.
The Internet's opportunities for constant dialogue and wide reach also lend vitality to political movements. And the Internet breaks down some of the barriers to involvement.
More than 600,000 electronic messages on this issue have been sent through the site to members of Congress and to other government officials, including those to the White House, she said.
To foster real-world activism, the site links to a Grassroots page that lets visitors find information by Zip code on public meetings on the issue.
The Internet's real impact on politics will be its influence over voter behavior, according to political activists. The Internet breaks down some of the barriers to involvement by making it easier to contribute or send a message, Davis said.
"Fifty percent of our contributions were from people under the age of 45," Davis said. "A lot of those were 'dot-ed' [.edu] locations, which means a lot of young people for the first time participated by giving money in politics."
The Internet also is changing is the way people interact with government agencies. For example, the site ezgov.com provides software, advice and hosting to help agencies provide services to citizens online.
| e.ffect FEEDBACK|
| MESSAGE BOARD|
It is good business. Government spending for online services is expected to grow nearly five-fold in five years, from $1.5 billion this year to $6.2 billion in 2005, according to Jennifer McCollum, ezgov.com's communications director.
"Citizens are demanding it," McCollum said. "They are asking, 'Why can I trade stocks, why can I go to Lands' End and buy my clothes, why can I buy a plane ticket -- but not register my car online?'"
The government saves money on administration, she said. And people get a clear line to submit feedback.
"We have an FAQ where you can punch in a Zip code and find out contact information on all your local officials, even the dogcatcher," said McCollum.
It is the interactivity, the ability to talk back, that could change American politics as much as television did, McCurry said.
"Because of that [interactivity], some people who have been disconnected from politics, who haven't voted, will move back into citizen action through the Internet."
If the trends continue as some people want, "we the people" may even vote online in the future. Already the Internet is changing the way politicians "get out the vote."
Democratic National Committee
Heritage Forests Campaign: Ourforests.org
Republican National Committee
Straight Talk America: McCain2000
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