By early 1995, the race to win the U.S. presidency in 1996 was well underway. The first two candidates to announce were Phil Gramm (then the senior senator from Texas) and Lamar Alexander (then a former governor of Tennessee, and in 2020 its senior senator). Both hoped to secure the Republican nomination and face off against President Bill Clinton on Election Day, November 5, 1996.
But Gramm and Alexander also jostled for a minor place in technological history: Both claimed to be the first presidential candidate ever to have a site on what was then known as the World Wide Web. On May 17, 1995, the Gramm campaign issued a press release trumpeting that accomplishment. Six days later, Alexander’s campaign made the same declaration in its own release.
In an article on campaign websites published later that year, The Baltimore Sun’s Brad Snyder noted the dispute and said that Alexander’s site had actually launched first; Gramm had merely been swifter to publicize the existence of his. And if you want to get technical, comedian Pat Paulsen, who was running for the third time as an act of political performance art, had put out a release about his own site the previous February.
In any case, they were soon joined by other candidates, making the 1996 campaign the first to be fought on the web. Which is not to say that it was much of a battle. As the race began, the consumer World Wide Web was so new that its history could be measured in months. Nobody in politics was an expert on leveraging its power—which was okay, because most voters weren’t yet on it.
Already, there were glimmers that the web could be the most democratic, far-reaching publishing medium ever devised by humans. At the time, however, it was also a novelty, with a superficial sheen of coolness for its own sake. The men who ran for president—and they were all men—mostly treated it as such.
In July 1996, after Kansas senator Bob Dole had sewn up the Republican nomination, The New York Times’s Steve Lohr wrote that the Clinton/Gore and Dole/Kemp general-election web presences were “partly marketing gestures intended to emphasize that their candidates are men of the future, at ease with modern technology.” That was true of most of the primary sites, too. But 24 years later, these attempts to commandeer the next big thing have become wacky, endearing relics.
Beyond the walled garden
Though the 1996 presidential election was the first one with a web element, online electioneering began with the 1992 campaign. It’s just that Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web wasn’t yet a worldwide phenomenon. Even in January 1993, as Bill Clinton was taking the oath of office for his first term, there were only 50 websites in existence.
In 1992, proprietary, walled-garden online services—such as CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy—had been popular enough to attract attention from candidates. They were especially intriguing to dark horses such as former California governor Jerry Brown and Irvine, Calif. mayor Larry Agran, who couldn’t afford to blitz prospective voters with TV ads. (Agran had even been arrested for trying to crash a debate that hadn’t invited him.)
Republican consultant Mike Low
It’s gotten so that if you’re not out there, people will think there’s something wrong.”
Four years later, the web was already a bigger cultural phenomenon than the likes of CompuServe had ever been. But even in September 1996, with the general election approaching, only 22% of Americans were going online, according to a Pew Research Center study. Not all of those people had ventured out of the proprietary services and onto the web. And only 5% of them reported going online specifically to seek news about the election.
For candidates, the fact that the web was just emerging was part of its appeal. A campaign site might not reach voters in droves, but its very existence was a sign of forward thinking. “It’s gotten so that if you’re not out there, people will think there’s something wrong,” said Mike Low, a consultant for Steve Forbes’s campaign, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times’s Eleanor Randolph.
And at first, just being out there on the web counted as success. The Republican field’s websites during the primary race were cobbled-together affairs: According to The Baltimore Sun’s Snyder, campaigns spent $30 to $50 a month on hosting costs, with the more ambitious efforts also involving consultants who got $1,000 to $1,500 a month. Given the cost of TV advertising—even the uncontested Clinton/Gore ticket sunk $13 million into TV ads during primary season—that sounded like spare change.
As preserved in screenshot form on the invaluable 4President.us, most of the resulting home pages look pretty much like the ones that random citizens of the 1990s posted on services such as GeoCities and Tripod. They were eyesores—yes, even by 1996 standards—with graphics that looked like someone had whipped them up in Windows Paint. Stylistically, they didn’t get much more ambitious than the red-and-black plaid theme of Lamar Alexander’s site, evoking his then-famous flannel shirts.
Along with ugly logos, grainy photos, candidate bios, and position papers, the sites are rich in reminders of the nascent state of the web in 1995 and 1996. Indiana senator Dick Lugar’s home page helpfully announced that, “This document makes use of advanced HTML features.” Basic web-surfing maneuvers required explanation: A message on the site of candidate/pundit/ex-presidential advisor Pat Buchanan advised users to “scroll down on this page to find the latest updates and click ‘Reload’ to refresh your browser window.”
That message was signed by “Linda” (Muller), who was Buchanan’s webmaster—and who, amazingly, manages and signs the still-extant Buchanan.org today. Whatever you think of Buchanan’s ardently right-wing politics, his website may have set the bar during the 1996 primaries. Dense with information and frequently updated, it had a stronger community element than other sites and won plaudits from media outlets such as Time and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Then there was multimedia, which—in the age of 14.4-kbps dial-up modems—was more of a headache than it was worth. Alexander’s site featured a postage-stamp-size video of him being sworn in as Tennessee governor, and told Windows users to shell out $10 for Apple’s QuickTime player and Mac users to “make sure when saving the files, that the file type is ‘MooV’ and the Creator type is ‘TVOD.'”
Even some of the URLs were less than slick. The Lugar campaign could have snagged something like Lugar96.org for free—domain registrations didn’t involve a fee until September 1995–but instead chose www.iquest.net/Lugar. Alexander’s site debuted at www.nashville.net/~lamar before upgrading to the slightly more presentable www.lamar.com/~lamar. Not the sort of names that would have been easy to cite in a stump speech. (Judging from this C-Span reel of TV commercials, candidates didn’t bother to mention their websites in ads.)
The failure of campaigns to register the most obvious internet addresses led to an amusing interlude when Brooks Talley and Mark Pace, two Bay Area-based pranksters, began snapping up election-related domain names in mid-1995: dole96.org, clinton96.org, (Colin) powell96.org, and (Bill) gates96.org, among others. They launched zany hoax sites such as Dole96.org, which associated the candidate with the tropical fruit giant of the same name, describing him as “a sensitive, caring man (even kind of mushy like two-week-old bananas).”
Talley told the Knight-Ridder News Service’s Stephen Lynch that the sites got email from around 30 people a day: “Five who want to volunteer and don’t get it. Ten hate mails, and a bunch of people who think it’s really funny.” At least one campaign—that of California governor Pete Wilson—wrote to say it was not amused (“they were kind of nasty”).
Bob Dole goes interactive
According to Time, the fake Dole site helped inspire the real Bob Dole campaign to launch its own site at Dole96.com. Built by Arizona State University students Rob Kubasko and Vince Salvato, it showed a smidge of web savvy, thereby coming off as a cutting-edge piece of technology. Which was good: “Bob Dole didn’t need to seem any more antiquated than he was,” noted Kubasko in an excellent 2016 oral history of the 1996 campaign sites by The Wall Street Journal’s Mike Shields. Dole, who would have been 73 when sworn in if elected, had to contend with naysayers who argued that he was too old to be president. (For the record, he would have been a younger one than Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders will be on Inauguration Day next January.)
In the March 1996 issue of Illinois Issues magazine, Brian Lee praised the Dole site’s interactive features, including a clickable map of campaign stops across the country. “Most innovative, though, is Dole’s use of the Web to enlist support,” he wrote. “You can download campaign items, including screensavers and posters. Or you can send a postcard with a statement from Dole. And there’s an online trivia quiz about the senator and his political life that tests your knowledge of him and the issues.”
Dole may have been a bit of a latecomer to the online race, but he beat President Clinton, who ran unopposed in the primaries and never got around to creating a campaign site for them. (It didn’t hurt that his administration had launched WhiteHouse.gov in October 1994, with lists of presidential accomplishments and an audio file of Clinton’s cat Socks meowing.) The official Clinton/Gore site debuted on July 10, 1996, six weeks before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Vice President Al Gore—known for his technological savvy and not yet unfairly accused of having taken credit for inventing the internet—presided over a formal site unveiling at Clinton/Gore campaign headquarters in Washington, D.C. He explained that supporters could use the site to fact-check Republican claims (“one click of the mouse proves the elephant’s wrong”) and touted features such as downloadable buttons and bumper stickers.
Like any worthy 1990s site, Clinton/Gore 96 also featured a FAQ, and it’s evocative of the era in itself:
Q: What should I do if I have technical problems?
A: The web is rapidly becoming more user-friendly, but it continues to evolve as a revolutionary means of communication. Some speed bumps in the information superhighway are inevitable. Your Internet service provider or a knowledgable friend should be able to quickly resolve any problems you encounter.
Thank you for visiting the Clinton/Gore ’96 Website.
“The president of cyberspace”
Thanks to online preservationists, the Clinton/Gore and Dole/Kemp general-election sites remain online in something close to their entirety, along with that of Reform Party candidates Ross Perot and Pat Choate. These sites were slicker and more ambitious than the Republican field’s primary sites, not that that’s saying much. And there was evidence that the folks who dialed into the internet, even if relatively few, were more politically savvy than their offline counterparts. For instance, the Pew Research Center reported that 55% of online users knew that Bill Clinton’s campaign mantra involved building a bridge to the future; only 38% of the general population did.
But in 1996, the digital world was even more of a bubble than it is today, unreflective of society at large. According to Pew, 58% of the people who were online were men, and they tended to be far heavier users than women. Among online users, almost half of men over 50 logged in every day, but only 14% of women under 30 did. The online population was also substantially more affluent, educated, and suburban than average.
Libertarian campaign manager Sharon Ayres
If the internet is the future of politics, as many predict, then Dole and Clinton better watch out.”
By contrast, it was sometimes unclear just how comfortable the big-time candidates were with this whole internet thing. During the primaries, Jim Warren, an influential technologist, had asked Republicans to participate in an online debate, but only also-rans— Lugar, California congressman Bob Dornan, and tire magnate Morry “The Grizz” Taylor—were game. PC World magazine, where I worked at the time, tried to get the major candidates to help with an article about their stances on subjects such as internet privacy; when the meatiest response we got was two sentences from the Gramm campaign, we wrote about their seeming apathy instead. We also reported that Clinton and Dole had declined to participate in the National Political Awareness Test survey conducted by Project Vote Smart, an important source of election information.
And so maybe it’s appropriate that the online race ended with a gaffe. On October 6, 1996, during the campaign’s first presidential debate, Dole wound up his closing remarks with a plug for his website, right before his final “Thank you, and God bless America.” But in a goof that brings to mind Joe Biden’s mangling of his text-messaging address during a debate last August, he called it “www.dolekemp96org,” leaving out the crucial dot before “org.”
The flub itself made news, and the Dole campaign was a mite touchy about it. “Sen. Dole’s mention of the address during the debate was arguably the single biggest advertisement for a web site in history,” a spokeswoman told the Chicago Tribune’s Cornelia Grumman. The campaign also declared that the site had received a record-setting 2 million hits in one day. (“Hits” were a meaningless metric—if a web page had five images, each counted as a hit—but a trendy one at the time.)
Of course, even if Dole hadn’t missed that second dot, it wouldn’t have mattered much. Compared to presidential campaigns before and since, the 1996 race was particularly devoid of surprises. Dole had been the overwhelming favorite to secure the Republican nomination all along, and was always a distinct underdog to Bill Clinton in the general election. The web simply wasn’t pervasive enough to change the course of history.
Just as important, it was far too crude a medium. It wasn’t just that interactive content didn’t get much more sophisticated than Dole96.com’s trivia quiz. At the time, nothing could truly go viral online, since there was no way for large numbers of non-geeks to rapidly share and reshare items with others. Campaign sites weren’t even fundraising vehicles; the very idea of using credit cards on the internet was still scary for many people. (The earliest campaign sites launched months before an online bookstore called Amazon.com sold its first tome in July 1995.)
Some people understood the World Wide Web’s limitations and pitfalls even then. In December 1995, in a prediction that was more prescient than he could have known at the time, Republican pollster Steven Wagner told The Baltimore Sun’s Brad Snyder that the web would really matter once it evolved into something resembling a more powerful and interactive form of talk radio. That’s as good a description of Twitter and Facebook as I’ve heard.
Gary Selnow’s 1998 book Electronic Whistle-Stops: The Impact of the Internet on American Politics, written in the wake of the 1996 election, quotes veteran journalist Marvin Kalb:
In an uncensored, open-access medium where everyone can have a say, everyone will have a say in one way or another. What people say will be opinionated and partisan, it will play fast and loose with the facts, and it will largely be undocumented. Much of the Web already is information by mob rule, and that isn’t likely to change as this decentralized medium becomes more populated.
It took years for Kalb’s gloomy expectations to be fully realized. But they have been. And as the 2020 election plays out amidst conspiracy videos, Russian bots, and Twitter-borne misinformation, the campaign web of 1996–rudimentary though it was—might leave you wistful for the days before the internet ruined politics, and vice versa.