Net Election

Is McCain Winning the Net War? 

It’s now part of election legend that John McCain’s Web site has exploded since the New Hampshire primary. In the two weeks following his victory, the campaign has taken in some $2.5 million in Web donations and signed up 40,000 volunteers online. If there were an Internet caucus, McCain’s performance would almost certainly make his site the winner.

That’s not, however, what the Internet experts think. Last week, the prominent Massachusetts-based Internet firm Forrester Research issued a report saying, essentially, that all the candidate Web sites suck—and McCain’s is the worst. Candidate sites, Forrester concludes harshly, “suffer from cumbersome navigation, a lack of key functions and poor synchronization with contenders’ offline activities.”

So wait: What are all those McCain donors and volunteers responding to? Are the Net heads impossibly out of touch? Are they asking the sites to do something dramatically different from what the general public is asking?

Perhaps. The Forrester study actually preferred George Bush’s “simple but effective” site. And as for McCain, study author John McCarthy asserted in an interview that “Even though [McCain’s] gotten a big return from the Internet, he could be getting a bigger one.”

It’s the familiar political expectation question. Since the Web was barely a factor in the 1996 contest, there’s no meaningful precedent for how candidate sites should function or even for what they should do. What exactly constitutes good performance for a presidential candidate’s Web presence?

One typical yardstick is traffic to the site. No one pretends or assumes that presidential Web sites—especially at a relatively early stage in the campaign—are going to threaten Yahoo. Traffic to candidate sites has grown remarkably since the Iowa caucuses, but it remains modest by Internet standards.

According to the measurement firm PC Data Online, McCain’s site attracted about 149,000 unique users during the week that ended Feb. 12. That’s more than three times as many visitors as the next highest site (Al Gore’s 46,000 unique visitors), but keep in mind that Net giants such as Lycos or Yahoo attract 30 million to 40 million unique visitors a month.

There is an argument to be made, however, that making a site interesting and easy to use will help ensure that a candidate’s fans come back. That’s the perspective behind the Forrester report. The study rated each site’s performance in 24 areas—from “Is the URL predictable?” to “Is the site available in four or more languages?”—and graded on a scale from -2 to +2. The final scores: Bush, 8; Gore, 5; Bradley, -6; and McCain, -11. Specifically, Forrester faulted McCain’s site for poor navigation and said that “on multiple occasions, the site was not available.”

Max Fose, McCain’s principal Internet architect, does not take the study’s criticisms terribly seriously. “If we had to start over from Day 1, there are of course some things we’d do differently,” Fose said. “But many of the things [Forrester] points out I think we’re doing pretty well at.” (He also said it was possible that Forrester visited the McCain site immediately after the New Hampshire primary and ran into service difficulties caused by the tide of simultaneous users.)

Beyond the minute details, there remains a sense that candidates have limited what they do on the Net. Why, for example, load all Net functions of a campaign onto a single site? Multiple sites exploring a candidate’s positions on various issues might well attract Internet users not otherwise interested in a generic candidate site. (Bill Bradley, for example, has sent supporters multiple e-mails criticizing Gore’s abortion flip-flops; taken together, they could make a very popular hot-button site.) And to date, none of the candidates have used Internet advertising in any demonstrably effective ways.

Even though McCain blesses the Internet now, it seems unlikely that future candidates will make the Net central to campaign strategy until they’ve already sparked the electorate. The Web alone cannot make a candidate (any more than it can make a bad band famous).

Witness the Steve Forbes lesson: Most observers thought that the Forbes campaign operated the most sophisticated Web site, using gimmicks like a flat tax calculator and extensive streaming audio and video bites of the candidate chattering about freedom. But, despite some heavy breathing in the Wall Street Journal about the importance of the Internet to Forbes’ Iowa performance, the site overall couldn’t help Forbes match even his mediocre ballot-box record in the 1996 race.