Net Election

Do Presidential Candidates Use the Internet?

Every presidential candidacy this year is represented by an official Web site. (Click here to read Slate’s survey of these sites.) But what of the candidates themselves? They all give lip service to the idea of the information revolution, and especially to the quantities of cash it’s pumping into the economy. But do they know how to use personal computers? Do they send and receive e-mail? Do they surf the Web? How regularly do they do so? How long have they been doing so?

Net Election’s crack research team sent a brief e-mail questionnaire on Web literacy to all the presidential candidates. With a touch of naive optimism, we imagined that our reporting would be complete once we’d tracked down e-mail addresses for each of these campaigns and shipped our questionnaires off. The idea was that the campaign staffs, if not the candidates themselves, would immediately download our questionnaire, hit “Reply,” answer its not terribly demanding questions on the spot, and ship back the answers within moments. To encourage a prompt response, we assured all candidates that we didn’t intend to judge harshly those who displayed poor Web literacy, since–let’s face it–computer skills rank fairly low on the list of the things one needs to master in order to be president.

Alas, even in an age where “just-in-time inventories” are believed by some to have eliminated economic recessions, political campaigns lack the ability–or perhaps the inclination–to respond quickly to electronic queries. In fact, only three presidential campaigns–those of Al Gore, Alan Keyes and Orrin Hatch–sent e-mails back. Of these three, only the Keyes campaign produced a truly “frictionless” response (that is, responded to our questionnaire before we started making the inevitable round of follow-up phone calls to campaign press aides), though Hatch’s and Gore’s e-mailed responses, like Keyes’, were in the candidate’s own words. The only candidate we spoke with directly about his Internet use was Pat Buchanan, who said he’d been checking daily to track how the controversy surrounding the historical speculation in his new book A Republic, Not an Empire was affecting sales. (Predictably, it’s helping.) Elizabeth Dole’s campaign, though very cordial when we phoned, never got back to us with answers.

If the respondents are to be believed, there is no such thing as a presidential candidate who doesn’t use e-mail (though we didn’t bother asking Warren Beatty, Donald Trump, or Cybill Shepherd, all of whose candidacies remain extremely hypothetical; and while we sent an e-mail to Bob Smith, we lacked the initiative to try to reach him by phone). On the other hand, it’s fairly common for a presidential candidate not to use e-mail in connection with his campaign. (Presumably this is because a candidate’s e-mail address, once known by the entire campaign staff and by political supporters, would be spam bait.)

Here are the survey results (click on the graphic for an enlargement):