Prodigy's Political Profile supplies long look at candidates

Personal computers

February 17, 1992|By Michael J. Himowitz | Michael J. Himowitz,Staff Writer

Personal computers have revolutionized the way politicians do business.

Sophisticated databases, accounting software, word processors, mailing list managers, mapping programs and demographic software have made it possible for candidates at all levels to target voters, raise funds, draw district boundaries and keep constituents happy once they get elected.

Unfortunately, it has been a lot harder for voters to keep tabs on the politicians whose salaries they pay.

So political junkies of every stripe will be delighted with a Political Profile, the latest offering from Prodigy, the on-line information and shopping service created two years ago by Sears and IBM.

Political Profile is a database of information about every congressional and presidential candidate. It includes brief biographies of incumbents, their records on key votes and ratings from a variety of special interest groups.

Just as important in an era of big money politics, Political Profile shows you how much candidates have raised and where they get their financial support.

All of this material is available elsewhere if you want to research the political journals in libraries, Federal Election Commission reports and sophisticated but expensive on-line databases such as Nexis.

But Prodigy puts it together in a neat, easy-to-use package at a bargain basement price. A Prodigy subscription is $12.95 a month for unlimited use -- a fraction of what some other information services charge for a single hour of connect time.

Political Profile also indicates that Prodigy, which now claims 1.4 million users, may be coming of age.

With its flashy graphics-based interface, ubiquitous ads and MacNugget approach to news, financial information, movie reviews, weather and other information, Prodigy has been more of an entertainment medium for families with computers than a place for a serious exchange of information.

Prodigy's image has also been tarnished among users of on-line services by charges that it has censored messages and eliminated discussions of some controversial issues in an effort to maintain its family image.

However, Political Profile and Prodigy's related political information services amount to a serious, if slightly flawed attempt, to bring important and useful information to voters in a critical election year.

Political Profile is chock full of presidential election information, but that's also widely available through the news media.

The real gem is the database of information on congressional candidates, which can be searched by name, state, committee (for incumbents) or congressional district. If you don't know what district you're in, just type in your ZIP code, and Political Profile will do its best to match you up (some ZIPs cover more than one district).

The information comes from a variety of respected Washington sources.

They include the National Journal, the journal's Almanac of American Politics, the League of Women Voters, the National Library on Money and Politics, and the Congressional Staff Directory,

If you're interested in a candidate's money, Prodigy provides campaign fund raising totals for the last three elections, along with a breakdown of contributions from Political Action Committees -- the special interest groups that have become major players in electing candidates.

If you want to see how much money a candidate got from defense interests, or big business, or labor, it's there.

The figures are a bit out of date right now, but they should be replaced in March with information from the latest Federal Election Commission reports.

You can see how incumbents voted on a variety of key issues and browse through ratings of each congressmen by 10 different lobbying groups as well as the National Journal's own index of liberal and conservative political behavior.

On top of this, you'll find a variety of political information about each state and its top politicians, a dozen different charts and graphs showing America's political and demographic landscape, a state-by-state voter registration guide from the League of Women Voters, daily news updates and regular, original contributions from columnists Robert Novak and Jack Germond.

If you're tired of the serious stuff and want to play some games, you can also become manager of your own campaign with "The Next President," a multiplayer game that simulates a real presidential election.

While the information in Political Profile would take much longer to find or cost much more using other on-line services, Prodigy's offering has some serious problems.

The worst is that Prodigy's software won't let you print the information or capture it on disk. While the graphics are pretty, what you see on the screen is what you get, unless you're using an external utility programs that allow you to print or capture graphic images.

Also, much of the information is dated. Prodigy's congressional districts don't reflect changes brought about by the 1990 census, and its current lists of candidates are incomplete.

However, Prodigy promises regular updates.

To use Prodigy, you'll need an IBM or Apple Macintosh Computer, a modem (2400 baud is best) and Prodigy's dedicated communications program, which is available with a start-up subscription kit at most software outlets.

For information, contact Prodigy Services Company, 445 Hamilton Ave., White Plains, N.Y. 10601.

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