Election 2000: The Net and Politics

On Tuesday, US votes will go to the polls and select their next president. This election will mark the first time the Internet has played a significant role in politics and it seems there is no turning back. In today’s column, I’m taking a look at how the Internet changed politics and what can be learned from it in the future.

Web and Email: Essential Campaigning Tools

In 1992, the Clinton/Gore campaign was one of the great innovator in that field. Using a list server, the democratic ticket sent out policy papers, press releases, and announcements of gathering to thousands of subscribers. After they moved into the White House, they continued providing detailed policy information via the Internet. In those days, however, few people cared as the Internet had not yet captured the public imagination.

This year, politicians fully seized the Internet as an essential campaigning tool. As the presidential campaign hits its last few hours, tons of emails are invading my mailbox. They come from all parties and it is interesting to see them pile. People are asking me to vote for Bush, Gore, or even Nader. One has to give credit to all the parties involved: they are getting the Internet and are using it to not only rally their base but also expand beyond it.

Going beyond email, the candidates bypassed the traditional media filter by posting their positions directly to the web. Both Gore and Bush have extensive repertories of policies listed on their site. If you want to know about a candidate’s position on just about anything, you can just check their site and see where they stand on different issues. In researching a story about their Internet stance, I made heavy use of the web sites and discovered them to be fairly comprehensive. By using the web, the candidates appealed directly to voters, making themselves more accessible and providing their view of the world to anyone interested enough to read the sites. The web has essentially allowed, for the first time, to assess politicians side, judging them on their comments.

However, the web has been treacherous to candidates too. Bush, in particular, made a few missteps at the beginning of his campaign when a spoof site popped up and he tried to shut it down. By leaving the Internet component to volunteers instead of putting full paid staffers on it, Bush set himself up for problems. They arrived in the way of gwbush.com, a parody site which was very critical of the candidate and got him to say that “there ought to be limits to freedom on the Internet.”

Gore, on the other hand, found himself entangled in a web of ridicule when he said that he had been instrumental in the development of the Internet.

Furthermore, sites like OpenSecrets.org have tracked PAC donations to candidates and made it possible for more people to see who’s being supported by certain groups. This has made contributions a lot more transparent and candidates a lot more nervous as they try to distance themselves from some of the more controversial PACs.

But interestingly enough, the current front contenders were not the early adopters of campaign related technology in this election. The also-ran (McCain and Bradley) showed the way in terms of using the Internet by leveraging its ubiquity to help them in their fundraising effort.

Both McCain and Bradley pointed people to their websites in every speech, collect campaign donations and mobilizing volunteers online. While their bid for candidacy failed, they realized tremendous savings by using the Internet for fundraising and developed a new channel for campaign contributions. This, I believe, will become a staple of campaigns in the future.

The Internet as Issue

Another interesting factor in this presidential election has been the presence of the Internet in policy discussions. According to a search on the debate transcripts, the Internet was mentioned 17 times during the presidential debate. Bush sees the Internet as both evil (linking the Internet to the Columbine massacre) and useful for education, as long as there is filtering the Internet in public places. Gore, on the other hand, sees the Internet as the solution to many problems including reducing the size of the government by moving more of its services online and dealing with the crisis in agricultural by sponsoring support for Internet businesses in rural areas. While in the final analysis, little in those comments may have any influence in the next four years, they show different states of mind when it comes to technology and they serve to illustrate that the Internet has gone a long way from being ignored four years ago to being included in presidential debates nowadays.

Also of interest is the fact that each candidate has articulated his position on a number of Internet issues. It’s the first time each candidate has presented what can be considered a net agenda and represents a major step in the advancement of the industry. The Internet is no longer just a new technology trend, it now permeates every aspect of business, and presidential candidates recognize our industry’s importance in the economy.

The rise of the E-class

Both Bush and Gore have gone out of their way to get the support of big name VCs and other technology leaders. The good thing for those of us involved in the industry is that Internet issues are now on the national agenda. The bad thing is that most people in the technology arena are politically naive, when compared to leaders in other industries. There are only few efforts to lobby congress on relevant issues, and when those come head to head with groups lobbying for brick-and-mortar companies, they usually loose. It will take some time for the technology industry to recruit the right kind of lobbyists, people who have had a lot of experience in the field and are well connected on both sides of Pennsylvania avenue. However, the good news is that the support the two front contenders for the president’s job have received will probably come with strings attached and the leaders who are supporting the winning candidate will get wider access to the White House, hopefully helping government to understand some of the critical issues related to our fast moving industry.

Voter Trader: Legal or not, they won’t go away

Another important development in this year’s election is the rise of vote swapping sites, like NaderTrader, Vote Swap, and VoteExchange. The basic premise of those sites is that people in one swing state can exchange their vote with people in other states. Many of those sites have been established as a way to rally support for Gore in swing states, where Nader could end up giving a win to Bush. Whether they will have any influence is still up for discussion at this point (we’ll only know early Wednesday) but those sites represent a new way in which the Internet could influence elections. If people start swapping their votes, one could start seeing a larger focus on campaigning directly to those sites’ constituencies. In the future, single issue voters might end up exchanging votes at a more local level in order to get their agenda to pass. If, as the media seem to say, most voters are truly centrist, what we may end up with is a set of loose coalition formed on the web. Imagine two people: One of them wants a new railroad, the other a new bridge. Using one of those sites, they could essentially say “Vote for the Republican mayor because he supports construction of a new bridge and I’ll vote for the Democratic state senator who supports the construction of a new railroad.” This could represent a new trend in politics that would probably shock politicians as they would have to choose their constituencies carefully and follow through on their promises. In a way, this could actually be the rise of an E-democracy.

Instant Polling: Get your wrong numbers quickly

However, the influence of the net on politics this year also had some darker sides. The one I am the most worried about is that of doing instant Internet polls after a candidate’s comment. During the presidential debates, the major news channels all posted multiple choice questions on their site. People would instantly reply and the TV channel would report the result about 15 minutes after the polls had been posted. What worries me about this instant polling is that it is far from being scientific. Because the people who go to those sites were self-selected, the polls were largely skewed in favor of one candidate over the other. Further exacerbating the problem was the fact that many newspapers would then pick up those polls and reprint them. All that was accomplished in the process was clouding the statistical picture by relying on people’s gut reaction to a candidate. If there is one thing that needs to be refined in the future, I think that kind of gotcha polling will have to go.

In the early 90’s, before the Internet was as popular as it is now, many of the people on Usenet talked about the net eventually becoming what Jefferson envisioned: a marketplace of exchange of ideas. With its growing commercialization, the net has gone beyond just being a nice place to chat and become the backbone of a whole new world. On Tuesday, Americans will vote and we will see how the online exchange of ideas can influence the rest of the world.

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