March 20, 2003

Online campaigners, citizens, and portals in the 2002 elections

Part Four: Looking Ahead to 2004

The Sound Of Music

Viewed in terms of its technical parameters and architecture, the Internet marks a radical break from the mass media which have dominated modern communication.  It can carry many voices, not just the famous and well-financed ones; it has plenty of room for substantive presentations, and allows ample time and access for deliberative discussions; it enables people to move effortlessly from talk into action.  If media were musical instruments, the Internet would be an orchestra synthesizer (and, of course, in some situations, it does that literally).  Yet the story we have told about how the Internet was used in the 2002 elections is one of people noodling off-key versions of the same old songs: campaigners loading self-promotional material onto their Web sites, citizens giving this material cursory and (via the news media) sideways glances, and portals relegating the entire subject matter to the digital equivalent of the back pages and dead-of-night hours. 

Earlier in this report, we asserted that campaigners, civic groups, and the news media could provide some of the features the online citizenry says it wants to see at little cost and low risk.  A summary of these features can serve as a barometer of progress for 2004.  To the extent we see more of the following, online election politics will improve, sometimes for particular types of participants, and sometimes for the political system as a whole:

  • Signs of grass-roots support.  Campaigns that show off the names, faces, and numbers of citizens who back them will discover that these optimistic displays of politicking can be infectious.  (On the Internet, “viral” is a good, not a bad, adjective to append to the noun “campaigning.”)
  • Rate-this-message interactive features.  Candidates will get valuable feedback; citizens will feel included portals will garner more traffic and retain it longer.
  • Last-minute and real-time GOTV, openly coordinated among candidates, parties, and groups.  The “ground war” aspect of campaigning, in which staffers and volunteers fan out to knock on doors and provide rides to the polls, has returned to political vogue.  Wireless communication is in vogue, too.  As campaigns learn to put the two together, voter turnout rates might well skyrocket in closely contested elections.
  • The IPDI Best Practices.  See Part One to review these seven benchmarks.
  • Searchable databases.  From financial disclosure to voting records to sponsored bills that became law, the more substance that candidates and incumbents make available in researchable forms, the more portal links and citizen traffic they will attract.
  • Humor and blogs.  These forms for political rhetoric are conducive to email circulation.
  • Matchmaking services.  A dot-com start-up called MeetUp.com has already had an impact on the 2004 race for the Democratic presidential nomination; with thousands of online citizens relying on it to arrange small-group meetings on behalf of candidates.

As online politicking matures, there will surely be tensions between what campaigners deem effective and what citizens regard as proper.  Journalists, regulators, academics, foundations, the push and pull of electoral competition, and the big portals will have to fill the gaps between performance and ideals with respect to financial accountability (both contributions and expenditures) and the quality of campaign dialogue.  On one aspect of campaigning, however, the Internet brings the interests of campaigners and citizens into greater convergence: the role of volunteers.  The decentralized and multi-pronged architecture of the Internet reminds us that campaigns need networks of people as much, if not more, than they need mass media visibility, and that democracies need maximum participation in campaigns to assure the legitimacy and vitality of the results.  It is the campaign volunteer, clicking through and clicking forward, who is most likely to make online politics sing.