Have Fun!" advises California's official election Web site.
Elections? Fun? Well, for some at least.
On primary election night in California, home computer users on the West Coast - and anywhere else - could catch the latest returns live on the state's web site.
Those with up-to-date PCs got customized totals for the contests they wanted, updated automatically every five minutes and plotted on colorful, county-by-county displays. By morning, anyone who missed the victory and concession speeches could download audio versions from a San Francisco web site.
In one respect, these election fireworks hint at the potential of technology to transform American politics. Millions of ordinary computer users now have access to sophisticated data - at least in California - that was once limited to network TV moguls. Citizens can bypass the news media and go straight to the candidates, interest groups and the government.
Indeed, at a time when traditional news organizations are scaling back election coverage, more information than ever before is available to those with a computer, an Internet connection and an interest in politics.
Most major candidates in the 1998 elections have sites on the World Wide Web. Some accept donations or sell campaign merchandise online. Congressional voting records and political donations are posted on the Web. Citizens with PCs can find out the name of their representative and, in some areas, the location of their polling place. Political chat rooms are buzzing. Online clipping services - some free and some fee-based - provide round-the-clock links to campaign news. Thanks to the PC and the Web, those with the time and the inclination can become virtual political insiders.
But the Information Age has yet to revolutionize politics the way that TV - the last great technological advance - did.
At the moment, relatively few people are connecting with campaigns and candidates on the Web. While a survey by Pew Research Center found that the audience for Internet news is growing rapidly, politics is a snooze, even for this largely upscale group. It ranked politics at the bottom of its list of Internet interests.
California, home to one of every eight Americans, is the most wired state in the country. According to a recent survey, 42 percent of its residents have e-mail addresses. But even in California, the marriage of PCs and politics has yet to be consummated.
An apathetic netizenry is one obstacle. The fact that most people don't have computers is clearly another. And a failure of imagination by candidates and their advisers another factor in keeping e-politics from taking off.
"I can't prove to you that anybody has cracked the code yet," says Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster in the Bay area. "It is coming. I'm just not sure from a practical standpoint that anybody has figured out how to do it yet."
For the most part, campaign Web sites attract an elite audience that's already tuned into politics, including civic leaders, journalists and aides from rival campaigns. In the June 2 primary, labor organizations revved up a grass roots drive to defeat an initiative that would have crippled their political power. But in a state with 14.5 million voters, the Web site promoting the union effort drew 25,000 visits in the three months leading up to the election.
According to promoters of digital democracy, 1996 was the last election for the old politics and 1998 will be the first true Information Age campaign. But like many other claims about the Internet, these predictions appear premature at best.
"We're on the cusp," says Dave Dolliver, a political Web site designer in Sacramento. "But we won't really see things change until the first five years of the next millennium."
There are several reasons for this. The Internet audience - estimated at 40 million and growing - still represents only a fraction of the voting-age population. Younger people, who make up a disproportionate share of computer users, are also the least likely to vote. At the same time, the mostly middle-aged strategists who manage campaigns have been slow to adopt the new technology.
"The people who run campaigns all think radio, TV, print. But the Web is just slowly creeping into their way of doing things," says Dolliver. "They don't really have faith in it yet."
Four years ago, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, like most candidates, did not have a Web site. This year, all of the major candidates for statewide office have sites. Sen. Barbara Boxer's offers everything from an online political support group and e-mail newsletter to an online store that sells bumper stickers, Boxer shorts and other merchandise.
Most candidate sites, however, offer little more than "brochure-ware" - campaign leaflets and press releases dumped verbatim onto the Web. Many offer clips of news stories favorable to their candidate, and some include newspaper articles critical of rivals.
In a dubious achievement for a governor's race glutted with commercials, at least one gubernatorial candidate, U.S. Rep. Jane Harman posted several of her TV ads on her Web site.
The Harman campaign also took part in one of the most closely studied experiments of the campaign year: an election-eve mass e-mailing to 350,000 voters.
That e-slate - a group of Democratics who paid a San Francisco computer consultant to include their names - was scaled back after some candidates became worried that voters would object to receiving political spam, or junk e-mail.
"I have no idea if it had any impact," Harman campaign manager Kam Kuwata says of the computerized slate cards. "It's hard to come to any conclusion as to effectiveness."
The advantages of the Internet are the ability to narrowcast to selected audiences, low cost, and the opportunity to reach supporters instantly with e-mail.
"It's the sleeping giant," says Leslie A. Goodman, a Republican consultant in Sacramento. "In the long run, I can see it as an integral part - but not a replacement - for traditional advertising."
Jonah Seiger, who launched an Internet campaign consulting business late last year, says the Internet will never replace television in campaigns "because television is a powerful tool. But the Net gives you a different way of reaching people."
Using e-mail, candidates can engage potential supporters interactively. Banner advertising that appears on the top of Internet pages can be used to home in on selected groups of voters.
"I can target women voters in the third district of Iowa," Seiger says.
Of course, campaigns have long used traditional mail - and more recently, telemarketing - to reach specific voter groups. Veteran consultant Kuwata sees a parallel between the evolution of Internet politics and the early days of direct mail.
"Somebody decided at some point that the way to do direct mail was to send a pot holder. The voter kept the pot holder, with the candidate's name on it, and the candidate's name recognition grew," he says.
Politicians are seeking similar advances as they look for ways to hook technology to campaigns. For the moment, though, the Internet's power as political tool is in a primitive stage, much closer to a pot holder than a television tube.
Want to learn more?
Here's a selection of top political Web sites.
California Secretary of State Bill Jones' site should be a model for elected officials elsewhere. Through this site it is possible to view the innovative "advanced election night server" used to display customized returns in the June 2 primary.
The nonpartisan California Voter Foundation has more than 180 links to candidates and election sites, plus an online voter guide that helps voters locate their polling places online.
A national organization that provides nonpartisan information about candidates, issues and elected officials. Enter your ZIP code and find out the names of the people who represent you in Congress. Then click through to view their voting records. Members of the Maryland legislature are included (but their voting records are not).
Rough & Tumble is the best of several California sites that cater to political insiders. It is produced by Jack Kavanagh, a TV reporter in Sacramento, the state capital. It has links to many of the best national political sites.
Netizens discuss the Internet and its power to transform politics and culture in the new millennium. Part of the fun is bashing the old media (read newspapers), whipped up by self-hating journalist Jon Katz, an online columnist.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush may be the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, but his younger brother Jeb has a big edge in cyberspace. A candidate for governor of Florida, Jeb will accept your contribution online. You can also use your credit card to order JebWear (the $32 Bush for governor polo shirt is quite nice) right over the Net.
A good example of special-interest politics on the Internet. Included in this site are daily updates on political news of concern to environmentalists. There are also links to chapters around the country, including one in Maryland (updated less frequently; its site contains an April newsletter attacking the poultry industry for polluting the state's waterways).
The home page of one of the first Internet political consulting firms. It won't be the last.
The Jefferson Project is one-stop shopping for campaign and political information - Republican, Democratic or Libertarian, national, state or regional. Search for information by candidate, party and ideology. And it has a sense of humor.
Pub Date: 6/29/98