The Internet Election - How important is the Web to the campaigns of the presidential candidates? And how skillfully have the campaign teams designed their sites? Paul Simpson examines the likely effect of the first-ever Internet election, and PRWeek rate

Let’s get one thing straight: the Internet is not going to win this presidential election for anybody.

Let’s get one thing straight: the Internet is not going to win this presidential election for anybody.

Let’s get one thing straight: the Internet is not going to win this

presidential election for anybody.



Comparisons to the role played by television in 1960 are based on a

complete misunderstanding of that election and the role of media in

politics. Michael Cornfield, research director of the Democracy Online

Project and associate research professor at George Washington

University, says simply: ’The Internet will be about as important as the

phonograph was to the 1960 election - not very. New media don’t decide

presidential elections, presidential elections showcase new media.’



John F. Kennedy won in 1960 because, unlike his rival, Richard Nixon, he

understood the power of TV. JFK wore showbiz makeup (rather than the

’Lazy Shave’ Nixon used to hide his stubble) and he made sure his suit

was a different color from the backdrop so he stood out instead of

blurring into the background (as Nixon did). And even though a candidate

like Steve Forbes has thrown anything from dollars 330,000 to dollars 1

million at his web site, no candidate has yet proved that he understands

the political power of the Net as Kennedy understood TV in 1960.



Not that any candidate can write off a medium that, by the time the

votes are cast, will be in half of the nation’s homes. (And that half

will be the half that is more likely to vote.) As Phil Noble, publisher

of Politics Online, says, ’Jesse Ventura’s campaign staff says that the

Net may have given them a 3-to-5% edge in the Minnesota governor race.

In a tight race, that is a useful margin.’



But Ventura’s very success means the element of surprise has now gone,

and none of the sites for candidates in the White House race demonstrate

a clear lead in their use of the Net. Most are solid, decently organized

sites with a family album, a biography of the candidate, variously

presented policies, some kind of archive and a continuous invitation to

use your credit card.



Survey says



PRWeek set out to judge the presidential candidate’s web sites. We

selected a panel of five judges - Internet and political consultants and

PRWeek’s Washington, DC political marketing journalist - to rate each

site according to seven criteria: ease of use, design, interactivity,

timeliness, content/features, effectiveness and message delivery. The

PRWeek site survey found Bill Bradley’s to be best, followed by Al Gore,

John McCain, Steve Forbes, George W. Bush and Pat Buchanan. (See box for

analysis. Full details on the judges and methodology appear at the end

of this article.)



One of the senior pros in Vice President Al Gore’s e-campaign, who asked

not to be identified, vehemently denied that his candidate’s site is

dull.



’That’s just guilt by association,’ he insists. ’Because people think

Gore is dull - which I know not to be true, having met the guy several

times - it’s easy to say the site is dull. There is lighter content on

there.’ Asked to specify that ’lighter content,’ he said, ’There’s the

kids’ stuff.’



Forbes, Gore and Bradley have all exploited the Net’s power to give the

user access to real in-depth information without perhaps realizing that

people are attracted to the Net because, as Cornfield says, ’You can

leave in a flash if you’re bored.’



But the sites are raising serious money. Noble says that by the time the

race ends, some dollars 20 million will have been raised online. The Net

can reach more voters per buck than, say, direct mail: banner ads, which

yield the same 1-to-1.5% response as direct mail, cost a dime compared

to 30 to 40 cents for snail mail. E-mail solicitations can cost dollars

1 but they have a 10-to-12% response rate.



It’s not just about money, it’s also about volunteers. Robert Arena, who

ran the Robert Dole site in 1996, says, ’We said that 15,000 out of our

45,000 volunteers came from the Net but that’s partly because the

candidate mentioned his site in the first TV debate, and you’ve got to

have that commitment from the candidate.’



Four years later, this commitment is there in terms of campaign

resources.



Cornfield says most of the candidates have now moved beyond simply

uploading their brochures, although a lot of the sites have pages that

look like scanned-in press releases. The sites are usually updated

regularly, although some can seem as if they are their candidates’

answer to CNN - they throw a bit of news up top and the rest is ancient

history. Lynn Reed, who designed the Bradley site, says technology must

be driven by the campaign’s aims.



’The site should be technically good enough to be professional and to

operate smoothly, but the other bells and whistles are only worthwhile

if they advance a strategic goal of the campaign.’ For example,

Bradley’s site does a good job of positioning the candidate as a real

person, not someone who has only been in politics.



Privacy is primary



But for many candidates, this campaign has taught them that Internet

politics are different from land-based politics. Cyberspace puts much

greater emphasis on issues like privacy. Some of the candidates have

learned this - and they are learning - the hard way, through news

stories about their own sites that did not reflect on them positively.

At the very least, they have done some things that they obviously didn’t

first think through.



Bush’s campaign must have assumed it covered itself when it bought URLs

www.Bush.sucks.com and www.Bush.blows.com. But in May, Bush’s campaign

filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against a parody

site called Gwbush.com; the action brought the campaign negative

publicity, especially after Bush said that ’there ought to be limits to

freedom.’



Bush dropped his bid to kill the parody site but soon stumbled into a

fight about privacy when he published a list of donors. Bush’s donor

information is now buried on the site, which has added a privacy policy.

The final indignity came when some hackers broke into the newly revamped

site to upload a hammer and sickle onto the home page. ’It was only up

there for three minutes before it was corrected,’ says a Bush e-campaign

chief.



Republican consultant Bill Greener says, ’You have to say that George W.

Bush’s campaign hasn’t done a lot you can quibble with. But I think,

unless you’re convinced a parody site is pure evil, you really shouldn’t

be giving it any of your time or thoughts.’



Gore made a great play of giving visitors the chance to inspect his

’open source code’ - like he was some sort of Linus Torvalds. It turned

out to be plain-old HTML. Many people viewed it as just a gimmick about

his openness. ’Calling HTML ’open source code’ is like calling gym shoes

a personal transportation system,’ wrote election site Evote.com.



Even Forbes, who announced his candidacy online, was found to have a

security hole in his site that let anyone send out e-mails to 5,000

volunteers on behalf of the campaign. Pat Buchanan’s site has had to

take down inappropriate copy, such as a story urging him to quit the

Republican Party (before he actually quit). Reed, who worked on the

Clinton-Gore e-campaign in 1996, says, ’The biggest mistake most

candidates make is putting up information that is not ready for public

consumption. Candidates should realize opponents are always looking at

their site.’



Bradley and Gore may have a slight lead in the cyber campaign, but the

contest has barely begun. Dave Model, director of the Hathaway Group,

says it’s unlikely any of the candidates will match Ventura’s

success.



’Part of that was his personality and populist positions were a clear

match for the Internet. I doubt other candidates will come across the

same way.’ (Buchanan Webmaster Linda Muller claims she’s been fired, and

a team of Web pros from the Hathaway Group are rumored to be moving in,

which may help his site.)



TV versus Web



The surest sign that the Net will finally have taken center stage is

when online consultants have more power than their equivalents in

TV.



’Right now, 60 to 70% of a campaign’s money goes on television,’ says

Arena, ’but the Net can be so much more cost effective.’ When Gore made

his TV pitch after the Senate vetoed the test ban treaty, he could have

done the same pitch on his web site for a tenth of the money and - being

the man who ’invented’ the Internet - he should have known that.



These are still early days in the cyber campaign and most of the sites

want simply to put their candidates’ biographies in the public domain,

mobilize volunteers and raise money. Arena says the percentage of

candidates’ web space devoted to their own life story proves that we

have entered the age of biography politics, where the issue isn’t

ideology but character.



But Noble is happy to go on record as predicting ’there will be one

story, I don’t know what, that will come out on the Net that will

influence the news agenda.’



The campaign e-managers are reluctant to be as bold. Greener says the

Net could make a difference on turnout ’at the margins.’ Equally, a

smart Net campaign can help underdogs like Bradley and McCain and

third-party candidates. ’If I was a third-party candidate, I’d take as

much money as I could and put it onto the Web,’ says Noble. But the Net

will be credited with electing Clinton’s successor only if it is a very

tight race. And, although the gross figures for number of hits for each

site sound impressive (see box), they should be put into context. The

only name with any presidential relevance to be featured on

SearchWords.com’s list of the 100 most-requested names is Abraham

Lincoln. He came in 99th on the list - below the Toronto Sun and just

above Brad Pitt.





Judges



Robert Arena: Web consultant who worked on 1996 GOP presidential nominee

Bob Dole’s campaign Web site; principal, Presage, Alexandria, VA



Bill Greener: Republican political consultant with Greener & Hook in

Washington, DC



Steve Lilienthal: Washington, DC, reporter for PRWeek



Phil Noble: Democratic political consultant, Phil Noble & Associates in

Charleston, SC



Paul Simpson: Internet editorial consultant and columnist for The Net

magazine





The methodology



The judges were asked to rank the sites according to seven criteria.



The ’nuts and bolts’ categories - ease of use, design, interactivity,

timeliness and content/features - account for half the marks, with each

category marked out of 10. Effectiveness and message delivery together

account for the rest of the score, with a top ranking of 25 for

each.





Web site review: presidential hopefuls in cyberspace



George W. Bush (Republican)



www.georgewbush.com



Money raised online: dollars 90,000



Web developer: Greg Sedberry, Syscom Services (Silver Spring, MD)



Ease of use: Since the site has tried nothing fancy, browsing is

easy.



It has a search engine, but our search came up saying that the index was

out of date. 7



Design: Since the October redesign, a clear menu of options is always

visible but the front page lacks punch. This looks like the site of a

candidate who feels he doesn’t have to try too hard. 6



Interactivity: No campaign kit to download. You can personalize the site

by registering, and you can e-mail the candidate but there’s nothing

that indicates whether or not he’ll answer. 4



Timeliness: On November 10, the latest news was two days old. On most

other visits, it was slightly better than this, but the overall feel

doesn’t smack of urgency. 6



Content/features: Has e-mail, audio, video, a strong Spanish section, a

’youth zone,’ shop where you can buy George W. Bush mineral water for

dollars 1.50 a bottle. 5



Effectiveness: The site hasn’t raised much money but this campaign’s

rich enough not to worry about that. In the last two weeks of October,

the site had 5.2 million hits - not the same thing as unique visitors

but still pretty good traffic. 11



Message delivery: His views on the issues are clear but the absence of

any Q&A-type format with real voters suggests that he’s not that

interested in other people’s views. 16



Funniest moment: ’Baseball players must be able to throw, catch and hit

the ball. Candidates must know about current events and important

issues, such as education.’ The Just for Kids section’s attempt to draw

analogies between politics and baseball strikes out.



Total: 55





Steve Forbes (Republican)



www.forbes2000.com



Money raised online: dollars 30,000



Web developer: Hensley Segal Rentschler (Cincinnati)



Ease of use: Ordinary mortals might find the profusion of buttons,

passports, control panels and the top 762 news stories about the

campaign just a bit confusing. There are 61 buttons on the home page

alone. 4



Design: While technically it’s the most sophisticated site,

aesthetically, it’s quite drab and uses unappealing colors. 6



Interactivity: Online polls, constant invitations like ’What do you have

to say?’ requests that you lead an e-precinct. The visitor can’t help

but feel flattered by all this. 8



Timeliness: Forbes sets a standard to which all other candidates should

aspire. Every campaign event is recorded here, though do we really need

to know that they had to send out for more fried chicken at a rally in

Waterloo, IA? 9



Content/features: You want features? Forbes got ’em: online polls,

webcasts, e-mail, video, audio, links, campaign kits, a site search,

postcards, desktop wallpaper - which makes it even odder that there’s no

Espanol.



9



Effectiveness: His campaign claims to have 5,000 e-precincts - some with

as many as 5000 members - so the Net is obviously working for him.



14



Message delivery: The site hones in on the issues like a laser beam -

possibly because Forbes has the kind of life story that doesn’t really

strike a chord with many Americans.9



Funniest moment: ’In 1990, Steve became President and CEO of Forbes Inc.

and Editor in Chief of Forbes.’ Although the site calls Steve a ’devoted

family man,’ there’s no mention here of the two people who played the

biggest part in his rise: Pa and Grandpa Forbes.



Total: 59





John McCain (Republican)



www.mccain2000.com



Money raised online: dollars 260,000



Web developer: Azfamily.com (Phoenix)



Ease of use: Despite the slightly nostalgic feel of the home page, this

is a very simple site to find your way around. 8



Design: With its reliance on the familiar red, white and blue, corny

photography and occasional flourish of Gothic typography, this has the

folksy charm, lack of pretension and down-to-earth good humor of a

small-town newspaper. 7



Interactivity: Apart from e-mail, a few polls and feedback on the

students section, there’s not much scope for interaction. 3



Timeliness: The press releases are updated regularly but the home page

doesn’t change enough. The campaign is cutting into Bush’s lead, but you

don’t sense this when you first find the site. 4



Content/features: E-mail, links to other Republican Party sites and to

his own campaign finance-reform site (www.itsyourcountry.com), audio,

video, a good site map, postcards, financial disclosure and shop. No

search engine and no Spanish content. 5



Effectiveness: McCain is the online community’s favorite Republican and

the campaign claims to have had more than 1 million hits over ’recent

weeks.’ After a recent campaign-finance debate in the Senate during

which the site was mentioned, over dollars 20,000 was donated through

the Web site.



17



Message delivery: The only perceptible difference between candidate and

web site is that the site hasn’t been accused of having a bad

temper.



The biography makes good use of his war record without being corny. This

is a rare thing: a site that makes you actually like the candidate.

16



Funniest moment: The button for George W. Bush staffers who have, says

McCain HQ, recorded 4,625 hits in two weeks, making them easily the

site’s most frequent visitors.



Total: 60





Pat Buchanan (Reform)



www.gopatgo2000.com



Money raised online: dollars 90,000



Web developer: Jason Brasswell



Ease of use: A pretty compact, text-based site that’s relatively easy to

navigate around, though the parts of it don’t always gel. Needs a

thorough reorganization. 6



Design: Patchy. The top of the home page tells you what he stands for

and what you can do if you agree. But the rest of the page is messy with

many of the links taking you outside to news sites or a prominent plug

for his book. (There are so many references to Buchanan’s books, you

half- expect a link to Amazon.com.) 3



Interactivity: You can join the volunteers, make a donation, buy a book

or e-mail the candidate (who will read your message). 3



Timeliness: Buchanan’s reactions to such topics as Gulf War syndrome are

posted daily, but the last official press release from the campaign was

uploaded six weeks ago. 6



Content/features: E-mail, good links to relevant news sites and special

interest sites like Antiwar.com, but no shop, no online campaign kit, no

Spanish section, no search engine, no audio or video, no kids site and

not much disclosure of donors. 2



Effectiveness: Fails to live up to the standard set by Buchanan’s

e-campaign in 1996. The scant biography seems mainly concerned to stress

his links to Richard Nixon, while his connection to the Reform Party is

glossed over. No sense of an active campaign. 8



Message delivery: The site clearly reflects Buchanan’s personality and

policies. But Americans don’t elect candidates they don’t like and from

this site, Buchanan comes across as a crotchety figure obsessed with

things people have said about him. 10



Funniest moment: Pat’s pledge on ’Cleaning corruption out of government’

running right next to a picture of the candidate with ... Richard

Nixon!



Total:38





Bill Bradley (Democrat)



www.billbradley.com



Money raised online: dollars 650,000



Web developer: Lynn Reed



Ease of use: Probably the easiest site to navigate, with a menu of

options always to your left. 9



Design: There’s a very fine line between polished and professional and

bland and dull, and sometimes this site just ends up on the wrong side

of that line. 6



Interactivity: You can download a good online campaign kit and e-mail

your story via the web site, but no online polls. 7



Timeliness: Consistent daily updating of campaign news and home page

rewards returning visitors. 8



Content/features: Pop-up windows, video, e-mail, shop, easy-to-find

information on donors, some Spanish content, good media center (although

if you do subscribe to his e-mail updates, be warned - you may be snowed

under). However, there’s no search engine, section for kids or

links.



8



Effectiveness: Bradley has scooped up the most online funds and has

attracted 650,000 unique visitors since last December with almost half

of those logging on in the last two months. 16



Message delivery: The site reflects Bradley’s personality but that’s

pretty easy to do with a biography that stretches to eight pages. His

views on the issues get a good airing, but he mainly stresses the fact

that he hasn’t always worked inside the Beltway. The worst that can be

said of the site (and by extension, Bradley) is that it takes itself

just a shade too seriously. 19



Funniest moment: ’Bill grabbed several pencils and hit the (Senate)

podium 56 times in 81 seconds, reminiscent of the blows (Rodney) King

experienced at the hands of the LAPD’ (after the verdict came down

acquitting the police of beating King).



Total: 67





Al Gore (Democrat)



www.algore2000.com



Money raised online: dollars 80,000



Web developer: Ben Green



Ease of use: Sometimes you can find yourself marooned wondering how you

get back to the home page. But for the most part, the page-top buttons

guide you through quickly. 6



Design: Technically adept without being flashy, this isn’t quite as

innovative as you might expect from the man who ’invented’ the

Internet.



7



Interactivity: Internet democracy in action with the electronic town

hall that, until the promised live Q&A sessions materialize, is a bit

like a monotonous version of a letters page. 9



Timeliness: The home page doesn’t change much and it’s not unusual for

the latest news from Gore to be a two-day old speech. 4



Content/features: Gore’s own words in every format except for

eight-track cartridge, downloadable photos and logos, a kids site, a

Spanish section, downloadable fundraising info and links to three

approved Gore merchandise sites. But no non-Gore links and no search

engine. 9



Effectiveness: A campaign official told PRWeek that the site has had 20

million hits and 1.2 million unique visitors and that 20% of those got

involved in some way, either donating money, volunteering or just

e-mailing the candidate. 20



Message delivery: This site is a perfect reflection of both the old

robotic Gore and the simpatico candidate who has recently reaffirmed his

membership in the human race. Gore’s focus on the issues is laudable,

but some of the content is so dull that it can induce a trancelike state

that can only be shaken by banging your head against the computer

screen. 10



Funniest moment: ’The very serious and troubling events in Pakistan

constituted a military coup, not an election.’ Just in case you were in

any doubt, Gore proves he’s not going to fail any foreign policy pop

quizzes.



Total: 65.



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