Internet Levels the Political Playing Field

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It's no secret that political candidates who rely solely on traditional media will miss getting the attention of the ever-growing number of Internet users. Voters are becoming increasingly accustomed to accessing information and researching candidates online and at their own convenience. That's why it's crucial for candidates to take their campaigns online.

According to the study "Campaigning on the Internet in the Off-Year Elections of 1998," 1,296 major- and minor-party candidates ran for Congress or governorships in 1998. Forty-three percent of these candidates had a campaign Web site, and at least 16 percent of those sites were run by a professional consultant.

This was more than two years ago. In the new millennium, if you aren't taking the Internet seriously, you should be. I think Charles Bowen of Editor & Publisher summed it up the best: "By all sorts of measures - even if it's simply the sheer number of political-oriented Web sites - this looks like the election year that the Internet comes of age in the political arena." Therefore, campaigning on the Internet has become vital to winning elections for every candidate running for office.

This is of particular importance to local-level candidates, whose budgets are not big enough to stage massive advertising efforts or pay for expensive Internet consultants and Web-site developers. Affordable Internet tools are available for all candidates, from the local-level candidate running for mayor or sheriff to national-level presidential candidates. After all, the Internet is not called the "great equalizer" for nothing.

The Internet allows all candidates with a Web presence to interact one-on-one with voters and effectively communicate policy goals, positions, and what makes them different than their opponents. These online tools can be vital to a campaign.

In the aforementioned study, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura was credited with running the first virtual campaign. Throughout most of his campaign, Ventura did not even have an office to work from, but he did have an effective online presence. Ventura's Internet consultant said, "The Internet did not win the election for us, but we could not have won without [it]."

The Web also offers unique features that candidates cannot get elsewhere, such as instant polling, message boards, online town hall discussions, as well as a convenient way to sign up volunteers and accept donations. For example, the Webmaster for Bill Bradley's presidential campaign said that the campaign is generating a remarkable $7,000 in credit card donations every day, plus an identical amount in matching funds through the campaign finance system.

The Internet is empowering volunteers as well. By rallying "cyber-activists," candidates are tapping into the power of the Internet to add more firepower to their campaigns. This is accomplished at a fraction of the cost and effort of typical old-school political field operations.

With the click of a computer mouse, you can rally your troops. E-mail lets you communicate quickly with volunteers who, in turn, are updated on their mission and out campaigning and signing up new volunteers via a form on the Web site.

This is nearly impossible to do quickly via telephone or mail because of high costs and time constraints. When volunteers and voters have questions, they can go to the Web site - they don't have to wait for a mailing or make a phone call. They have the control and power they demand.

The Internet is frequently used by voters. In a CBS News poll, 50 percent of Internet users said the Internet will be equally important in election decision-making as traditional news sources such as TV and newspapers. Another 13 percent said it would be more important. A significant 38 percent of Internet users said they would use the medium to help them decide whom to vote for or to get information on candidates.

The Internet also energizes voters. A costly television commercial may attract a viewer's attention for 30 seconds. The average Web-site visitor will spend about 12 minutes actively reading and gathering information at a political site.

Finally, the Internet has another advantage over TV. Viewers are not watching television to see and hear a candidate's message. In contrast to TV viewers, people on the Internet view political Web sites to specifically read the content and learn more. The Internet will be, and is, a more effective tool for educating and energizing voters.

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