1998 is test year for Net, politics Election: Candidates and voters turn to the Web for campaigning and information on the issues.

October 12, 1998|By Andrew J. Glass | Andrew J. Glass,COX NEWS SERVICE

As the November elections near, candidates are planting thei virtual battle flags in record numbers across cyberspace.

While 1998 is the first election year in which the Internet is widely regarded as a mass medium, it's still uncertain what effect these powerful new digital tools will have on individual campaigns, or more broadly, on the country's future political course.

"This is really a test year for the Internet and politics, and we expect to learn a lot from this effort," Steve Case, chairman and chief executive officer of America Online (AOL), said as he helped launch a major initiative to mesh the established political world with the fluid World Wide Web.

AOL is the host of the new Web, White & Blue site (http://www.webwhiteblue.org), which offers one-stop political shopping to some 45 major nonpartisan political databases. The selected sites, replete with clickable links, dispense voter information, campaign schedules, issue papers and state-by-state political news.

Zoe Baird, president of the Markle Foundation, a co-sponsor of the cyberproject, said 450 commercial Internet sites had agreed to carry a Web, White and Blue icon on their home pages.

As Case put it, "We're giving people the tools and resources to do their own research - to learn about the candidates and issues and to connect with the political process on their own terms and timetable."

4 Politicians also seem to be getting the message.

A survey of candidates, key staff members and consultants in 270 current campaigns published last month in Campaigns & Elections magazine last month found that nearly nine out of 10 respondents saw the Internet as a vital medium that is changing, or soon will change, political campaigns. Less than 12 percent voiced skepticism.

The new explosive political demographics of the Internet became evident last month when, within 24 hours, about 20 million Americans accessed the impeachment report on President Clinton referred to Congress by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. NetRatings, a cyberspace traffic measuring firm, found that online visitors spent an average of 30 minutes reviewing the report.

"Just as television has all but eliminated observational reporting, the Internet threatens interpretive and beat reporting," said Michael Cornfield, who teaches courses on politics and the new media at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management in Washington.

Cornfield, who also co-publishes an online political review, noted that such large document dumps put extensive source material directly in the public's hands for the first time.

As a result, he said, "Journalists are being forced to accommodate to the Internet by devoting more of their efforts to guiding their audiences into, and through, publicly relevant documentation.

"The public becomes an intimate part of the story itself, and the dynamic and the role of the media changes from being mere reporters of fact to guides to context."

The sheer growth of cyberspace has also affected the political process.

In California, where the Internet has extensive roots, a recent Field Poll shows that 41 percent of likely voters use e-mail and 67 percent use a computer regularly at home, work or school. Such high numbers offer largely unplowed soil for political operatives.

A nationwide telephone survey conducted in February found that the proportion of people who used the Internet for political activity had doubled since a similar survey conducted before the 1996 elections.

But the growth path has a way to go. According to Bruce Bimber, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who conducted the February poll, only 17 percent of respondents used the Internet to express political views, to learn about political issues, to browse for political information or to get in contact with elected officials or candidates.

That is the kind of activity encouraged by Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan nonprofit group founded 40 years ago by former senators and presidential candidates Barry Goldwater of Arizona and George McGovern of South Dakota.

"We're averaging more than a half million hits a day," said Richard Kimball, the group's president. "I fought against going on the Internet three years ago," he added, "but it's become huge for us."

No so huge, however, that the Internet stands a chance of displacing television as the prime contact point for voters in the near future.

Political consultants note that, unlike television, the Internet is still not universally available and that online information reaches only self-selected interested voters.

"On TV, you decide you want to watch 'Seinfeld,' and you get our ad," says Mark Mellman, a Washington political consultant whose clients have included Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Barbara Boxer of California. "But when you go to the Web, you have to want to go to a political site."

Want to learn more?

Here's a roundup of campaign sites.

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