A few months ago Cheryl Benton and a group of campaign strategists were drawing up their game plan for getting Carl Stokes elected mayor of Baltimore. Near the top of her list of tactics: create a campaign Web site.
Yes, Benton knew that not everyone had an Internet connection. And yes, she understood that the number of wired voters was likely to be small in a predominantly lower-income city like Baltimore. But it didn't matter. Even if only a few hundred city dwellers logged on to the Web site, they could help put Stokes in City Hall.
"It's just as important as Carl going door-to-door on the streets of East Baltimore," says Benton, who last month stepped down as Stokes' campaign manager for personal reasons.
"In an election like this where it's so close, every votes counts."
From Baltimore to San Francisco, politicians in local races are taking to the online campaign trail this fall, many for the first time. While these efforts often lack the polish of their presidential counterparts, mayoral candidates are increasingly convinced that bits and bytes are as valuable politically as baby-kissing and barbecues.
"Many don't know why they're doing it," says Ron Faucheux, editor-in-chief of Campaigns & Elections magazine. "They just know the other side is doing it and so they better be doing it too."
In Baltimore, six of the 22 mayoral hopefuls have Web sites, including front-runners in both parties. (You'll find links to the list of candidates on Sunspot's Election '99 page at www.sunspot.net/news/special/election99/).
"People expect legitimate campaigns to have Web sites," says Carol Hirschburg, a longtime GOP strategist and adviser to Republican mayoral candidate David Tufaro. "It's something that every modern campaign needs to have."
The Internet, according to many political scientists, has unprecedented potential to open up the political process, putting underdogs with tiny staffs and anemic campaign treasuries on an equal footing with deep-pocketed rivals.
By publishing campaign literature and rustling up volunteers and contributions online, politicians not only potentially cut costs, but also do an end-run past the traditional gatekeepers to the public -- the media.
"If voters want more than sound bites, we can give them the meat on our Web site," says Rick Binetti, spokesman for Democrat Martin O'Malley's mayoral campaign.
A direct pipeline to politicians is something Web-savvy voters seem to appreciate. Rachelle Collins, a 40-year-old optometrist from Reservoir Hill, said she follows campaign coverage in the local newspaper but ventured online to dig deeper.
"I wanted to find out for myself what these people had to say," she declared.
But a Web site can be a double-edged sword for candidates who don't take the time to polish their online pitches. Mount Vernon resident Maria High, 28, was dismayed to find some candidates promising to update their Web sites daily and then not following through.
"One hadn't updated his press releases since July. That's not daily to me," she complained.
Others never responded to her e-mail. "If a candidate is going to run their Web site like that, then maybe that's the way they'll run the city," she said, adding that the experience "completely changed my opinion" about who to vote for. She's now leaning toward Stokes.
Even with the potential downside, many strategists see the Web as a cheap alternative for candidates who can't afford pricey television spots or direct mail campaigns. And it has other advantages -- such its appeal to younger voters, who are traditionally hard to reach.
Politicians who question the power of the Internet need only look at Minnesota governor and former pro wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura, who staged a dramatic come-from-behind victory last year against better known and better funded rivals.
The centerpiece of his campaign was "JesseNet," an electronic mailing list of 3,000 supporters. With the click of a mouse, The Body's campaign organizers could dispatch their troops to staff phone banks, converge on rallies, and seed a town with campaign signs. There was even a "geek squad" responsible for videotaping events for the Web. The result: a surge in turnout for the Reform Party candidate by young voters who nudged him to victory.
Baltimore's most sophisticated e-campaign belongs to Carl Stokes. On his Web site, voters can peruse the full text of his campaign literature, see his daily calendar, sign up to volunteer, order sigs and even listen to his radio spots.
Campaign organizers say they've recruited about two-dozen volunteers through the Web, and they fire off a daily e-mail to about a third of the campaign's 140 volunteers.
Still, the online campaigns being waged here are fairly tame by national standards. In Philadelphia, a brouhaha erupted last spring over an unflattering phony Internet site for mayoral candidate John White, allegedly created by a Webmaster connected to an opponent's campaign.
In ultra-wired San Francisco, incumbent Willie Brown last month was dismayed to learn that dozens of potential Internet addresses for his campaign Web site-- from the straightforward williebrown.com to his trademark nickname, "damayor.com" -- had been hijacked up by archrival Clint Reilly, a real estate magnate.
Some candidates are convinced that the Internet is not a magic bullet for underdogs, and others who don't have the wherewithal to reach out online.
In Baltimore, Republican mayoral candidate Roberto Marsili says he has a campaign staff of three -- "that's including me" -- and doesn't have the resources to maintain a Web page. He's sticking to the low-tech approach -- pounding the streets, passing out handbills.
"If I could, I would love to have a computer installed here in my house and just bombard the city and news media with letters," said the 68-year-old retired stone mason and Little Italy activist.
Political scientists say the jury is still out on the Internet's influence on local politics. Michael Cornfield hopes to answer that question in Baltimore and several other cities around the country this fall when he launches a project called City Vote on Oct. 1.
"What would surprise me was if voters were changing their mind based on what they saw on the Web," says Cornfield, a professor of political management at George Washington University. "I don't believe that the Web has that power to convert people."
Candidates here, while acknowledging the growing importance of the e-campaign, doubt it will ever replace the meat and potatoes of local politics.
Says O'Malley spokesman Rick Binetti, "There's nothing more effective than being out in the street shaking hands and pressing palms."
Pub Date: 09/06/99