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One Nation Under Net

Today, Presidential candidates are posting their platforms online, political parties are recruiting donors on the Web, and voters are growing more connected to Washington via their modems.

T-minus 16 months and counting. Gore, Bradley, Buchanan, Bush, Dole and Forbes already have thrown their names into the hat. Their arduous, draining work — just beginning now — won’t conclude until the ballots have been counted and the first American President of the new Millennium announced.

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Until then, the most immediate and crucial task for any campaigning politician is to propagate a consistent message to potential constituents. And what better way to disseminate a persona, party, and platform than through the incredibly cheap channels of cyber space? It’s a strategy that rural militias and Branch Davidian cults have known for years, and now it looks like Campaign 2000 has the “legitimate” parties jumping onto the Web as well.

For example, if you crave a play-by-play account of how the Vice President and his first lady have spent their time on the campaign trail, check out the detailed photos at gore-2000.com, where anything from Gore’s weekly newsletter to his official e-mail address are easily accessible to the public. And, of course, potential contributors are welcomed with open arms.

Perhaps you’re rooting for the other side and would rather hear heartland homages from Pat Buchanan. Every day the Buchanan 2000 Web site broadcasts real audio clips of the candidate speaking straight from the cornfields of Iowa. “Literally, [Buchanan] will call in from a cell phone out on the road campaigning to let our supporters know how things are going out on the campaign trail,” says his Communications Director Bob Adams. . The Internet has already played a significant role in the early rounds of political jabs. When speaking about Buchanan’s many years of experience with Web sites, Adams couldn’t resist slinging a wad or two of mud. “Our reliance on the Internet has certainly increased,” he said, “and so have our Internet innovations. Definitely since ’96 and certainly since ’92 and?by gosh, Al Gore hadn’t even invented the Internet at that time.”

Roger Salazar, spokesman for the Al Gore campaign, was quick to correct that popular misquote.

“The Vice President never said that,” Salazar said. “The exact quote was, ‘I took initiative in creating the Internet.’ And certainly, Al Gore has probably had more to do with the creation of the Internet than any other political figure out there.”

Regardless of its origin or progenitors, the Internet is changing the shape and scope of modern day politics. Congressional representatives across the nation learned that lesson the hard way this spring when interested constituents flooded the government’s email system with thousands of daily petitions, letters and complaints regarding the Presidential impeachment trial. If nothing else, that email nightmare demonstrated the power of the people and the potential of the Internet to bring those people closer to their elected representatives.

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That experience has encouraged several members of Congress to reassess their Web strategies and devise new channels for communication via the Internet. Though online voter registration and Web-based voting are still only a radical glimmer in the national eye, the potential for online technology in politics is emerging at a stunning rate as Election 2000 creeps closer and closer.

For at least one potential Presidential candidate, the idea of the Internet as a means of dissemination is as important as the message itself. When he’s not making plans for redecorating the White House, self-proclaimed “Internet candidate” Brian Saunders works the third shift as an electrical engineer in Maryland. Perhaps the strangest thing about this independent candidate is that his platform for the Internet Party has nothing to do with Internet issues at all.

“One of the reasons we picked the Internet Party as our name was because the majority of our campaigning will be done on the Internet, mostly due to financial constraints and the quickest way to reach the most amount of people with the least amount of money,” Saunders said.

The lack of Internet substance in his part-liberal, part-conservative, primarily libertarian platform makes Saunders’ campaign eternally confusing. But his point about financial constraints is well-taken. It costs only $80 a year for a Web domain name, an infinitesimal percentage of what will buy a few seconds of air time on a major television network. Third-party candidates have always had a rough go of getting attention, and if the public’s reliance on the online information continues to grow, perhaps the Internet can someday level the campaigning playing field.

For Campaign 2000, however, Saunders’ Internet Party has only a few hundred members, a grim fact that Saunders acknowledges freely. “I’ll quote a Web site that actually has me listed as 10,000 to one,” he said.

But then again, how can a mere “Internet candidate” compete with the guy who created the whole darn Internet anyway?

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