Net Election

Tapping Into the Fountain of Youth

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

Although the U.S. presidential race might have slowed to a canter, in South Korea the two main parties are in the final stretch leading up to the April 13 general election. With nearly 40 percent of the electorate still undecided, the ruling Millennium Democratic Party and the recently revamped Grand National Party are looking for new strategies to win votes.

Enter Minju, a young female cartoon character (whose name means “democracy”) who is the star of the MDP’s new 24-hour interactive TV channel. Seeking to harness the notoriously apathetic youth vote, the MDP has put its faith in the Net. In a country that boasts one of the world’s highest rates of Internet use, MDP TV taps into that culture, offering twentysomething reporters and anchors who conduct street interviews and debates about youth-oriented issues.

It’s similar to what MTV has tried with Rock the Vote, but from a single political party’s perspective. All of which, the party hopes, will persuade young South Korean voters that they should be down with MDP.

Couldn’t this also work for the GOP, not to mention the Democrats? After all, South Korea can hardly claim to have a monopoly on disaffected youth.

“I can see it being very appealing,” says Max Fose, the 28-year-old Internet strategist behind John McCain’s now folkloric, if aborted, presidential campaign. “To talk to that young audience,” he says, “you have to connect with them in the same way they’re connecting with their peers.”

As Fose and other strategists point out, however, young Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t hold their breath for political Web TV—the United States lags a long way behind South Korea in terms of broadband Internet access. “Our pipes are just not there yet,” says Tom Yeatts, co-founder of the online political consultancy firm Virtual Sprockets, and another interactive adviser to McCain 2000.

And while Yeatts believes that broadband political channels ultimately could work in the United States (the Republican National Committee Web site currently features segments from its cable outfit GOPTV), he thinks they will appeal to “a very small demographic: the political junkie, C-SPAN viewer.” Yeatts doubts whether a South Korean-styled political MTV, where young viewers soak up a political message through pop culture, would work in the States. “Teen-agers are a tough crowd,” he says. “I’m not familiar with South Korea, but perhaps the Koreans are less cynical than here.”

But whether an issues-driven Carson Daly is the way to electoral success or not, there’s no doubting the importance of younger voters in the coming presidential election.

In recent years, most noticeably during a Clinton presidency that won successive general elections against 64-year-old and 73-year-old Republican opponents, younger voters have sided with the Democratic Party. “We’re not as associated with stodginess in the way the Republicans are,” says Rick Hess, deputy press secretary of the Democratic National Committee.

Both parties realize that the Internet is a natural medium to reach younger voters. Fose points out how McCain’s renegade message and upstart campaign galvanized a new group of young GOP activists on college campuses across the country. Hess, for his part, points to how online voting during the Arizona Democratic primary appealed to younger voters and how the DNC Web site features various technological bells and whistles—such as digital downloads of site info to cell phones and hot-syncing ability for portable devices—that speak to a faster-moving society. “We’re fully committed to finding new ways to energize young voters,” he says.

It’s not only the DNC that’s getting up to online speed. “We are not oblivious to the fact that the average age for people online is lower than the average age for likely voters,” says Larry Purpuro, deputy chief of staff for the Republican National Committee. And with that in mind, the RNC unveiled a revamped Web site last week. “It has a much fresher, youthful appeal,” says Purpuro.

On the new site, GOPers can sign up for dialup Net access with; consult a digital calendar featuring every local, state, and federal party event in 2000; pledge contributions; and comment on the party policies using new digital voice technology supplied by Net2Phone. Purpuro adds that there’s even an X-Files spoof on the site called, of course, the Gore Files.

Neither party’s current Web initiative is likely to lure the teen-age crew from gawking at Britney Spears’ navel or ‘N Sync’s boxer lines, but this new acknowledgement of how the next generation lives in the interactive world might yet resonate with the younger voting-age public.

How they vote remains to be seen.