Next step for Net: engaging undecided voters

December 09, 2003|By David M. Anderson

WASHINGTON -- The big story in Internet politics is the Howard Dean presidential campaign.

In the third quarter of the fund-raising cycle, the former Vermont governor raised just under $15 million, about half of it online. His average online contribution is about $74.

Dr. Dean, with the consent of his followers, is also opting out of the public financing system. He is counting on the Internet to make himself competitive with President Bush.

The Dean campaign has also used Meetup.com very effectively. About 200,000 people have used this Web site to arrange Dean get-togethers in public places such as restaurants and bars.

Dean Web logs have also mushroomed on the Net.

Yet however impressive these developments, the Internet revolution is not here yet.

First, fewer than 1 percent of registered Democrats are giving money to Dr. Dean or using Meetup.com to get together in support of his candidacy.

Second, although Dr. Dean has used the Internet to become the Democrat's top fund-raiser and the front-runner in the campaign, he is using this ability to raise money to validate himself in the money-driven campaign system. If you can raise money, the tradition goes, then you are a genuine competitor. That's important at this early stage, but it is far from clear that it will translate into broader engagement once the primaries and general election roll around.

But if the Internet's primary function in election politics is to raise money, then this new information and communications technology is being used to drive traditional election politics, especially the traditional media. If it turns out that the greatest value of the Internet is that it enables a candidate to pay for 30-second sound bite ads on radio and television, then the Internet really will have been used in Election 2004.

The most striking thing about the Dean Internet phenomenon is that the people who are using Meetup.com to get together already agree with one another. The point of Meetup.com, after all, is to connect people with a shared interest.

What would truly be amazing is if the Internet could be used to bring people together who had not made up their minds. Rather than enlisting activists, these gatherings would center around dialogue and debate about the different candidates, their backgrounds and their positions on the issues.

Aided by the Internet, small groups of the undecided could meet in public places to talk politics. If the gathering took place in a coffee shop or restaurant with a wireless Internet hot spot, anyone with a laptop could get online and do research right then and there, combining face-to-face contact with the breadth of the Net's resources.

Restaurants interested in encouraging civic engagement but wary of aligning with a particular party or candidate could offer various discounts to those who mention their interest in a nonpartisan political discussion. Such an approach could break with the accepted wisdom that the goal of getting out the vote is to mobilize those who already support a specific candidate or a specific issue.

Take just one segment of the population: the estimated 25 million 18- to 24-year-olds in America. This is the most Internet-savvy but least-engaged segment of the voting public. Only about 32 percent of this group voted in the last presidential election, while about twice as many citizens between the ages of 65 and 74 vote.

Perhaps what it takes to encourage these young people to vote in the 2004 election is a mix of online and off-line interaction aimed not at candidates and preformed positions but rather at ideas, values and even doubts and uncertainties.

What if candidates were to put up young voter Web pages on which they tried to address issues that matter most to young people and presented their positions on broader issues in terms that made it clear to young voters why they should care?

The real power of the political Internet may lie with its capacity to help people who have not made up their minds to do so in a productive, social and even enjoyable way.

The Dean campaign is good for the Internet, and the Internet is good for the Dean campaign. Now we must build on these developments in order to fully realize the democratizing potential of the Internet.

David M. Anderson is executive director of Youth04.org, based at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington.

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