Respond to this Article May 2002

Machined Politics

How the Internet is really, truly---seriously!--going to change elections

By Nicholas Thompson

With control of the House and Senate hanging in the balance, every pundit, politico, and poli-sci professor has a theory on which party will win in November's elections. Opposition parties always gain in midterm elections, Republicans could ride Bush's coattails, Enron could swing the country to the Democrats.

Although these issues matter, close elections often hinge on a much less sexy factor: which party does a better job of getting out the vote. After all, when the polls open, policies don't vote. People do.

So if you want a sense of who will win, pay less attention to pundits and more to what actually drives people to the polls, especially one overlooked factor that has fallen short in the past: the Internet. As several recent primary elections demonstrate, smart campaigns have discovered that the Internet can serve as an amazingly powerful tool to help integrate a candidate's field operations, organize volunteers, and get out the vote.

Consider Illinois' hotly contested Democratic gubernatorial primary this March, in which Chicago congressman Rod Blagojevich engineered a narrow victory. His campaign set up 350 "indicator precincts" across the state, from which campaign workers reported voter turnout to headquarters by dialing an 800-number at prearranged times throughout the day. These numbers were immediately posted to a Web site for staffers in Blagojevich's campaign headquarters to download and analyze. If turnout was low in a county they expected to win, the campaign used email and phones to get more volunteers to knock on doors and contact likely voters, and even to plant popular supporters on local radio stations. "In Rock Island County, we showed their turnout to be very light early on," says Pete Giangreco, a consultant to the campaign. "So we turned our people there and not only got 69 percent of the vote, but we got a higher turnout there than in the last election."

Theoretically, the campaign could have done the same sort of compiling before the Internet, with pen, paper, and calculators. It just would have taken several days---by which time their candidate would have been home eating cold soup.

Blagojevich also boosted turnout with what Giangreco calls "Web-based predictive dialing systems." On Election Day, campaign workers strapped on their headsets, logged into a Web-based voter database, and let the computer automatically dial the numbers of likely supporters who had missed voting in at least one recent election and might choose to sleep through this one, too---data that the campaign had methodically culled from public records and private contractors and entered into its online database. "Usually a volunteer on their own with a manual phone can make between 10 and 12 contacts an hour," says Giangreco. "With a Web-based predictive dialer, that almost doubles." The campaign's net-savvy approach paid off. Blagojevich eked out a 3-percentage-point victory.

In a way, what Blagojevich did mirrored the work of one of his Chicago predecessors, Richard J. Daley. The notorious mayor and his cronies won by organizing precinct captains to corral votes, while Daley maintained a giant stack of note cards in order to remember who supported him (and thus might deserve patronage jobs) and who did not. According to one biography of Daley, a ward committeeman once stormed out of a meeting with the words, "For God's sake, you wonder how he can run the city, keeping all that shit about how many jobs you've got in his head."

Though the patronage system is dead, today's smart candidates are rediscovering the art of voter contact. They've simply traded in notecards for giant Web-based databases, and swapped arm-twisting for hyperefficient, electronic back-office operations. For savvy candidates, the Internet has become the new political machine.

Promises, Promises

Until recently, the most notable thing about the Internet's much-heralded effect on politics has been its failure to live up to its billing. It hasn't brought about a Jeffersonian revolution, changed the way we vote, or transformed political coverage.

Its most memorable moment came in 2000, when heavyweight politicos, from Mike McCurry to Dick Morris to Carl Bernstein, scrambled onto Web sites with giant ambitions and murky business plans, just like their counterparts in the business world. "The Internet has turned the communications industry in this country on its head," declared Craig Smith, Al Gore's one-time campaign manager, as he set up shop as the director of the short-lived site, voter.com. "It's going to turn politics on its head, too."

But when the tech bubble burst, the political Web bubble went with it, and the same business model that failed e-commerce, search engines, and other sites---draw eyeballs now, worry about revenue later---also failed. People did use the Internet to learn about politics. (The Pew Foundation reports that three times as many got campaign news from the 'net in 2000 as they did in 1996.) But most people wanted simple news, not a site "delivering democracy to your desktop," as voter.com promised. Online polls bombed as accurate gauges, cranks dominated Internet chat rooms, and ultimately users tilted toward trusted sites such as NYTimes.com and CNN.com.

The Web also underachieved in the most prominent campaigns. Clinton, Dole, and Perot all created Web sites in 1996, though they essentially amounted to little more than online yard signs with pretty pictures and a few funky features. In 2000, Steve Forbes announced his candidacy online, spent millions mining data and targeting ads, and sank to the bottom of the pack anyway. Hackers defaced George Bush's site with a hammer and sickle early in the campaign and his page crashed repeatedly in the heat of the final month.

Today, the old conventional wisdom---The Web Will Change Everything---has been replaced by a cynical new CW: The Web is Good for Nothing. "The Internet is cool and you never want your website listed as one of the 10 worst in politics," says Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. But "as a communication tool, the Internet is Tinkertoys." University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato echoes the views of other Washington insiders when he says, "I honestly believe that it doesn't matter much."

But the Internet is fundamentally changing politics, but in unflashy ways that parallel what has happened in the business world. After the dot-com crash, two types of businesses have principally thrived by using the 'net: Businesses that do old things in new ways that rely on the Internet's unquestionable ability to increase the speed and quantity of information flows, such as eBay, and old economy firms, such as UPS, that use the Internet to do what they're already doing better, faster, and more efficiently---for instance, linking suppliers and distributors in just-in-time inventory systems.

In politics, it's very much the same. What matters is using basic new technology to do old things better, and focusing on substance, not on how sexy a web page can be. "A campaign Web site is a receptionist's office. The really interesting stuff is occurring on the back end and through email," says Michael Cornfield, a George Washington University professor currently writing a book about the Internet and elections.

Web Pioneers

Among the first to understand that was a bald populist former pro wrestler who strutted into office with the help of a pack of 'net fiends. Running for governor of Minnesota in 1998 on a shoestring budget, Jesse Ventura couldn't spend much money on his Web site. Instead, he drove an RV from rally to rally, meeting hundreds of volunteers at each stop and organizing them into an online email list, which helped him to pull ahead over the final days of the election. "The Internet for us served as the nervous system for the campaign," Ventura's campaign manager said afterward. "The Web site was not the difference; it was the mobilization."

John McCain also understood the Web's back-office potential. In the course of his surprisingly vigorous presidential challenge, the Arizona Senator relentlessly plugged his Web site, mentioning it at rallies and painting the URL address on top of his bus for the sake of TV viewers and reporters in helicopters peering down at the Straight Talk Express. When visitors logged on, McCain worked aggressively to add them to his email list and persuade them to volunteer. When it looked as if McCain might not make it onto the Virginia ballot, his campaign sent Internet ads to state Republicans, urging them to sign and circulate McCain petitions. The Internet provided a fast and effective way to raise desperately needed money, and the underfunded candidate hauled in about $2 million online in the week after the New Hampshire primary. "The Internet changed the whole dynamics of the race," says Max Fose, McCain's Internet campaign manager.

Though McCain lost, another candidate applied the Internet's strengths in similar ways and won. Maria Cantwell, a former executive of the software company RealNetworks, created an innovative email listserv that enabled discussion between supporters and her campaign staff in her race to unseat Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.). Slate.com honored Cantwell's site as "the best campaign on the Web." Her campaign also taped and digitized her opponent's TV ads, emailing them to campaign consultants in Washington, D.C., and allowing her to respond within minutes. Cantwell's clever and aggressive use of the Internet was instrumental---and possibly decisive---in her 2,000-vote victory over Gorton.

Like Cantwell, Jean Carnahan of Missouri won an upset victory over a GOP Senate incumbent with a high-tech assist---provided, in this case, by the NAACP, which downloaded voter-list updates every half-hour on Election Day from a company called Aristotle. The NAACP was then able to compile names of voters based on 30 factors, ranging from age to income to military status. It could even identify "super voters" (people who have voted frequently in the past) and "fat cats" (people who have recently donated to political campaigns). This was particularly important in St. Louis. After election officials made the controversial decision to reopen the city's polls late at night (after registered voters were turned away), the NAACP was able to devote a few more hours to turning out likely voters for Carnahan, who went on to unseat then-Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) by two percentage points. This was not an isolated case. With about 150 million voter records in its file, available to campaigns at a cost of about two-and-a-half cents each, Aristotle's data were used in every single battleground state in 2000, and by 36 of the 50 wealthiest senate campaigns. The company's biggest client in 1999, representing 21 percent of its total business, was the National Rifle Association, an organization that also buys lists of concealed-weapons permit holders and has demonstrated that it knows a few things about influencing the outcome of an election.

And nowhere was the Internet's organizational effectiveness better displayed than in Florida, where Bush and Gore both flooded the state with Election Day emails. It was Gore campaign strategist Michael Whouley, watching the rapidly narrowing vote count online, who convinced the vice president to retract his concession. And after the election, the Republicans' use of email attracted a phalanx of GOP operatives to Florida to disrupt the ballot recount and ultimately help Bush take the election. "I think the Internet officially arrived on the political scene in December in Tallahassee," says Mark Walsh, a former AOL executive who is the new chief technology adviser to the Democratic National Committee.

Winning through the Web

The Internet's real value to politics has gone largely unnoticed by pundits and political reporters, who tend to focus their attention on the message end of campaigns. What are candidates saying? Do they have enough money to keep saying it? And how are voters reacting to what the candidates are saying? These are important questions. But they also happen to be the easiest ones for reporters to answer. Watch a candidate (or his commercials), read the polls, and suddenly you're an expert!

It's much more work to assess the strength of a campaign's field operations: who has the most volunteers, the most up-to-date voter lists, etc. Yet field operations are often just as important as message. Yes, Democrat Mark Warner beat Republican Mark Earley in last fall's Virginia governor's race by 53 percent to 47 percent, in part because Virginia's GOP had made a hash of the state budget---a fact mentioned in nearly every press account of the race. Little noticed was the fact that Warner, a former high-tech executive, spent proportionately five times as much of his money on the Internet as Earley, compiling a giant database of likely supporters based on information similar to Aristotle's and augmented by data scanned in from door-to-door visits and monitoring vote tallies and turnout, as did Blagojevich's campaign in Illinois.

Certainly Mike Bloomberg edged out Mark Green by two percentage points in the New York mayor's race with the help of a last-minute endorsement by Rudy Giuliani and Democratic infighting, as every reporter who covered the race surely noted. Unreported was the fact that Bloomberg poured much of his $50-million campaign budget into a completely novel Internet advertising campaign, targeting advertising on NYTimes.com to reach readers in specific zip codes (which the Times gathers each time someone registers on their site). In the election's final days, these sought-after voters were as likely to receive Bloomberg advertisements as news about Afghanistan.

Handicapping the House and Senate

This fall's elections promise to be especially tight. According to Cook Political Report, Washington's election-forecasting bible, Democrats have three very tough Senate seats to defend, as do the Republicans, with three other open seats a tossup. Control of the House will come down to about 30 or 40 races and could go either way. Many of those races haven't even had primaries, so it's too early to handicap them. But the party that can mobilize supporters best should win---which means that the party which best exploits the Web may well end up controlling Congress.

Democrats have always had some strong individual Internet users. Al Gore is generally considered to have run a better online campaign than Bush, and John Kerry has set up an extraordinarily advanced online campaign---ostensibly in support of his 2002 Senate race, but really more concerned with winning the presidency in 2004. His Web site allows users to personalize the issues about which they get mail, email friends about Kerry, post online bumper stickers and buttons, and start their own virtual precincts, either adding friends lists online or printing out an easy sign-up form.

Why Karl Rove Fears the Internet

Appearing on Charlie Rose's television show in early March, Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, singled out Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine, as someone whose race he was truly worried about. At first blush, that may have sounded odd. Collins's challenger, liberal state senator Chellie Pingree, may have plenty of good ideas, but she also started her campaign quite a bit behind the incumbent.

In the spring of 2001, Pingree originally set up shop at her home on North Haven Island, population 350, 12 miles off the coast of Maine. Then, with the help of her daughter, an escapee from ivillage.com, and a tech-savvy neighbor, Pingree built a high-speed wireless Internet system and began banging away at her Mac.

In addition to working the phones, Pingree sent scores of emails each day to everyone she knew, and many more to folks she didn't. When it came time for her first important fundraiser, she sent out a personal email to everyone who joined the list on her Web site announcing that she was having a picnic. "We will meet you at the ferry terminal on North Haven and bring you to the picnic (rain or shine). For lunch, we will have a cookout with hot dogs, chicken, and veggie burgers and we expect to have plenty of food. For those of you who want to add to the table, please bring either a salad or dessert."

Jon Corzine wouldn't have done it that way, but it worked.

Hundreds of people took the hour-long ferry ride to the island to eat veggie burgers. Hundreds more sent along online donations. Because of a late surge of Internet giving that summer, Pingree exceeded her first-quarter fundraising goal, a critical milestone for any candidate to show that she's serious and capable. In the second half of 2001, Pingree actually outraised Collins, something extremely rare for a challenger.

But Pingree is part of a new wave of challengers, many of whom have reaped the Internet's rewards because they tend to be poorer, hungrier, and thus more willing to try something new and unorthodox. Millionaire candidates like Bloomberg will always be able to do the most online, but while a good television strategy depends heavily on the size of one's bank account, a good Web strategy depends mostly on effort, smarts, and ambition. Of the challengers who defeated congressional incumbents in 2000, 75 percent were judged to have superior Internet strategies, according to rankings done before the elections by juno.com and e-advocates.com. That advantage may not last‹and ultimately the Web may mainly help incumbents able to build up huge lists over the years‹but for now it's giving challengers the boost.

Pingree may not be the favorite, but she is a contender, thanks in large part to the Internet. As Collins hangs back and waits‹she has yet to build a real campaign Web site‹Pingree's site was named the best of all Senate candidates' by Campaigns & Elections magazine and her campaign staff prides itself on what it says is the largest political email list in the state. Staffers gather information at everything from blueberry festivals to fundraisers, storing it in an online database accessible to campaign workers, whether they're in Penobscot or Portland. Campaign manager Deborah Reed says that this process has been critical to the fundraising campaign and will also be critical to getting out the vote on Election Day. "It's the best way to get info to people, and it's the best way to get info from people."

Pingree, who has moved her headquarters to Portland, grins and agrees, "It's just as easy to contact someone in Madawaska as someone just across the street."

--Nicholas Thompson

But overall, Republicans currently hold a major advantage. The Republican National Committee has compiled an email list of about 2 million people through aggressive advertising and marketing of its Web site. By contrast, the Democratic National Committee has a list about one-fifth that size. The RNC also maintains a database of about 200 million names, similar to Aristotle's, that it shares with GOP groups nationwide, allowing them to target likely voters by region and other factors. The Republican congressional leadership site, GOP.gov, has 1,650 email lists that users can join, broken down by everything from geography to issues to the frequency with which subscribers want to receive mail.

The Republicans may have this advantage simply because affluent people buy into new technologies first, and also because they have a steady income stream that allows them to invest in infrastructure (Democrats tend to spend everything they have each election cycle). But it's more likely that they have achieved this advantage because they are tougher and smarter than their opponents. According to a source close to the decision-making process, Democrats had an opportunity to set up a system similar to the GOP's. But they declined because Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) wanted more personal attention and nixed a party-wide email and news system, which he felt didn't put enough emphasis on him. A spokeswoman for Gephardt disputes this account and says that the decision not to mimic GOP.gov was made mainly for financial reasons, adding, "They're different sites and they do different things."

Nevertheless, to understand the extent of the Democrats' disadvantage, one need do no more than visit the search engine Google.com and enter "House of Representatives, Republicans." You'll be linked to GOP.gov with its 1,650 email lists. Then try "House of Representatives, Democrats." You'll get Gephardt's homepage and a little link at the bottom of your screen offering you the opportunity to sign up for "The Gephardt Report."

On Internet issues, the Republican rank-and-file generally seem one step ahead. According to a recent report by the Bivings Group, a Washington-based Internet communications company, Republican incumbents running for reelection in the House are 50 percent more likely to have functioning Web sites. Their sites are also easier to find, more likely to allow users to give online donations, and more likely to provide information on how visitors to the site can volunteer for the campaign.

When it comes to making good use of the Internet, Democrats do have some interesting challengers in the House. Jack Conway, a young candidate in Kentucky's competitive Third District, has constructed an impressive Web site, devoted himself to building a mailing list, and hired the firm netcampaign, one of the most respected strategy companies in the business, to handle his online strategy. But to take back the House, Democrats need to wrest more than half-a-dozen seats from Republicans, not one. And if they do so, all indications are that it will be because of something besides the 'net.

In the Senate, Democrats are in much better shape. Their incumbents fared slightly better than Republican Senators did in the Bivings Group poll and, more important, in the close races, the Democratic candidates have moved quickly online. Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.), who is in a tight Missouri race against former Rep. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), has already shown that she knows how to use the Internet. Paul Wellstone in Minnesota and Tim Johnson in South Dakota are two more Democrats who have also undertaken impressive online strategies, methodically culling addresses and recruiting volunteers. Chellie Pingree, a Democratic Senate candidate in Maine (see sidebar), is another Internet-aided candidate who might pull off an Election Day upset.

The Republicans, too, are moving full speed ahead in the tight races. Ben Whitney, campaign manager for Wellstone challenger Norm Coleman, says that the Internet is "potentially the greatest political tool of all time" and the campaign has set up all the essentials. John Thune, challenging Johnson in South Dakota, has created an online strategy that is in many ways similar to John Kerry's. Elizabeth Dole has hired Mike Bloomberg's online team to provide a little extra juice in the Tarheel state.

When it comes to governorships, the parties seem about evenly split, but one race to keep an eye on is in Texas. Democratic nominee Tony Sanchez built one of the most sophisticated Internet operations in the country during the primary, and stands a genuine chance of knocking off George W. Bush's successor, Republican Rick Perry. "The Internet's not a novelty, but a useful tool that can do down-and-dirty work," says Nathan Wilcox, Sanchez's chief Internet strategist. "It creates grassroots politics on steroids." He's right---and the party that understands that will probably prevail in 2002.

Research assistance provided by Joe Dempsey and Tyler Cabot.

Nicholas Thompson is a Markle Fellow at the New America Foundation and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.


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