Net Election

Which Party Is Webbier?

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

The Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, eternal rivals for political dominance, are now battling for Web supremacy. Who’s winning?

The DNC beat the Republicans to the Web, erecting a site in June 1995. The RNC countered just days later. The early sites were little more than electronic brochures, posting propaganda but not soliciting much information in return. Soon after launching, both began seeking online donations and sending electronic newsletters.

The DNC has settled on a more, well … conservative approach than the RNC. During the 1996 campaign, both parties conveyed their messages through downloadable audio and video, but the DNC dropped its clips as a cost-saving measure after it amassed a $17 million deficit. The Democrats also abandoned a 1996 experiment in providing Web access to party adherents.

Today’s DNC site is effective but conventional. Voluminous position papers detail the Democratic stance on every issue from affirmative action to welfare. The (misnamed) AdWatch section meticulously debunks Republican commercials, though it doesn’t actually post clips to watch. The Democrats also recently launched a Spanish-language mirror site. The DNC has embraced one trendy Internet technology, opening an online store that allows Democratic organizations around the country to buy campaign products in bulk. DNC Chairman Joe Andrew says that the store proves “the Democratic Party is the party of what’s next.”

The DNC may be what’s next, but the RNC is what’s now. The RNC likes to boast that, as RNC Deputy Chief of Staff Larry Purpuro puts it: “Al Gore may have invented the Internet, but Republicans are really putting it to work.” The RNC’s recently remodeled site has an “Online Activist” section that enables surfers to simultaneously send an e-mail to 45 newspapers (a feature that the DNC pioneered but eventually abandoned). Users can purchase elephant paperweights in a cyberstore and send a friend a donation solicitation via an e-postcard. And the site is loaded with GOPtv segments.

The glitzy RNC site suffers from more technological glitches than the DNC’s staid enterprise. The video and audio clips load slowly. When I tried to view the “GOP Environmental Accomplishments” page, I got error messages on five successive days. The Republican policy info offered in the “Key Issues” section is much sketchier than the DNC’s position papers.

The RNC site is more obviously partisan than its Democratic counterpart. The home page is replete with unflattering photos of Al Gore, while the national security area includes a Chinese espionage timetable and a summary of the Cox report. (The presidential contenders, seeking swing surfers, neglect to mention party affiliation on their Web sites. The parties don’t return that neglect. Both the DNC and RNC link to all the Web sites of major presidential candidates from their parties.)

Republicans are preparing to invest $5 million in their Web operation, dubbed e.GOP.They may open a satellite office in the heart of Silicon Valley. The most dramatic RNC idea, however, is GOPnet, an Internet access business the RNC will launch in January. GOPnet is a gambit to strengthen party identification and loyalty, the electronic heir to the old party clubhouse. GOPnet will be an “affinity service provider” and portal. The customized Internet entryway will provide traditional news along with plenty of party propaganda. Subscribers will get GOP e-mail addresses, and GOPnet chat rooms will wire Republicans together. The party will pocket a portion of the monthly service fee.

DNC Chairman Andrew writes off GOPnet as “a way to raise money.” Even so, party officials concede that the Democrats are planning to launch their own Internet access business, too.