This year, Americans are voting for the Internet

From blogs to dogs, Web sites could be driving force behind election's outcome

For the Record

January 18, 2004|By Maureen Ryan | Maureen Ryan,Chicago Tribune

Every four years, pundits tell us that this presidential election is fundamentally different from all the White House contests that have gone before. This time, they might be right.

The current election cycle marks the Internet's coming of age as a powerhouse political force. Millions of dollars are being raised online, and the supporters of various candidates are using the Internet to make themselves heard in new and powerful ways.

It's not possible in this "old" medium to list every single political site, but here are a few that might be worth your vote -- er, time.

If you've already read up on the issues but still can't decide which candidate to support, let Select Smart pick one for you. Go to their presidential candidate chooser (www.selectsmart.com / president) and take their brief but thoughtful quiz, which offers multiple-choice answers to questions concerning hot-button issues of the day. Once you're done with the quiz, you'll be shown which candidates most closely match your positions.

Once you've gotten your results, be sure to click on the link that shows how the 50,000 other people who've taken the quiz have answered. The results may not be as scientific as a professional political poll, but they're compelling nonetheless.

"What's a blog?" That was supposedly Howard Dean's response when, early in his campaign, someone suggested he start an online journal or Web log (i.e., blog). Dean, or his advisers, did in fact start a blog early on, but contrary to popular opinion, the rather dry and boosterish Dean blog (blogforamerica.com) is not what helped his long-shot campaign catch fire.

The real action on Dean's site is in the comment section that follows each blog entry and in the extensive user forums. In both places, supporters and detractors of the candidate can give suggestions to campaign advisers, offer advice to fellow supporters and engage in spirited debates.

Most other candidates have caught on to the Dean campaign's tactics, and several Democratic contenders now have blogs and user forums that allow visitors to post comments and debate various issues. Sen. Joseph Lieberman's blog (www.blogfor joe.com) even has useful definitions of the words "blog" and "troll" ("A person that posts outrageous messages to a blog to bait people to answer.")

President George W. Bush has a blog as well (georgewbush. com / blog). As on most candidate sites, entries on Bush's blog are written by campaign staffers; users can't post comments on the site, however. Perhaps as consolation, the blog offers a "Did you know?" fun fact of the day (Jan. 10: "Today in 1946, the U.S. Army established the first radar contact with the moon from Belmar, N.J.").

Another useful feature of candidate sites is the list of links that each provides. Most are organized into predictable interest groups ("Firefighters for [John] Kerry,"), but one of the most whimsical we found was created by dog owners who are supporting a certain former Army general: Be sure to paws for a moment at barkforclark.com.

The founders of Meetup.com, a 2-year-old Web site that links people via geography and common interests, said their site recently "turned the corner" on profitability. No doubt, the 2004 presidential campaign had a lot to do with increased interest in the site, which will soon rack up its millionth subscriber.

Meetup works like this: Say you enjoy knitting or are an Elvis Presley aficionado. Meetup allows you to find regularly scheduled meetings with other knitters or Elvis fans in your town. You might say the site was made for grassroots political organizing.

The Dean campaign had about 1,500 supporters meeting via the fledgling site a year ago, and it now has more than 176,000 signed up. The seven other Democratic contenders have Meetup supporters as well, as do President Bush and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. And if politics don't interest you, you could stop by the site to look for local gatherings of Klingons, vegans or model car fanatics.

Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are being inundated with a plethora of TV ads these days, and other states aren't far behind. If you can't wait for your Democratic primary campaign to begin in earnest, several candidate sites allow you to watch various campaign ads online (just type a candidate's name into a popular search engine to find his or her official site).

If those commercials don't sate you, the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org recently sponsored a contest that allowed people to create homemade anti-Bush ads. Ten finalist ads have been posted at Bushin30seconds.com; the overall winner started airing on broadcast television yesterday and will run nationally through Wednesday.

For general election information, sites created by news organizations (such as The Sun's Election 2004 site, at www.SunSpot. net / election) are a good place to start. And if you want to know who gave how much to whom, check out the searchable database of donors on the Federal Election Commission's site (www.fec.gov).

More idiosyncratic but still quite useful is the "White House '04" site created by Avi Bass, a professor at Northern Illinois University.

The site (www3.niu.edu / newsplace / whitehouse.html) is divided into five main areas: candidates, logistics, finances, latest news and history. One useful link on the site takes you to a calendar of all 50 Democratic primaries.

Another linked site posits that it's Prime Minister Tony Blair who should be in America's White House (www.blair2004.com).

As for that pesky matter of Blair's nationality, the site points out, "In the world of political parody and symbolism, citizenship is not an issue."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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