Net Election

Why the Web Needs More Negative Campaigning

{{Industy Standard Gif#34651}} Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

{{Slate’s Political Roundup#73099}}

The Net election lost its virginity last week when the Bill Bradley campaign and the Al Gore campaign each posted Web pages devoted exclusively to negative campaigning. (Click here to see the Bradley campaign’s “More About Gore” page; click here for the Gore campaign’s “Bradley Information Bureau.”) The Associated Press noted that “candidate [Web] sites until this week had been mostly positive, featuring baby pictures, policy papers, and video clips from the road.” Now the Web sites may get nearly as down-and-dirty as the campaign itself. Isn’t that awful?

No, it’s great. And the reason it’s great goes a long way toward explaining what’s really wrong with presidential-candidate Web sites.

Even with the advent of “More About Gore” and the “Bradley Information Bureau,” candidate sites mostly continue to be Potemkin versions of the campaigns themselves. They create the illusion of being vast archives of everything the candidate has said, but they aren’t. They’re archives of everything the candidate has said that he wants to remain in general circulation. One doesn’t, of course, expect candidates’ Web sites to tell you everything you need to know about the candidates. It is too much to ask them to post penetrating magazine profiles or critical newspaper analyses of contradictory public statements. Similarly, it would impractical for campaigns to try to post every snippet of information that has ever been turned over to a reporter. But the campaign sites ought to do better.

Here’s a quick rundown of what you can and can’t get on the Bradley, GoreGeorge W. Bush, and John McCain  sites:

Press releases. The McCain and Bush campaigns state unequivocally that all campaign press releases are archived on their Web sites. A Gore campaign aide says nearly all are but admits the odd press release has “slipped through the cracks.” The Bradley campaign says its press-release archive is not intended to be complete.

But the campaigns get tricky about what constitutes a “press release.” The post-debate instant-response messages sent to reporters via e-mail and fax (and handed out to those on the scene), for example, aren’t formal “press releases,” and usually you can’t get them on the Web. There’s also a Zen riddle problem: If a press release is posted somewhere on a site, but you can’t find it, is it really there? I tried to find a press release the Bush campaign issued before the South Carolina primary making public the text of a controversial “advocacy call” that McCain had attacked as a deceptive “push poll.” But when I entered a snippet of the advocacy-call text (“largest tax increase in United States history”) into the Bush site’s mighty search engine, I got “No documents matched the query” and, in smaller type, “The index is out of date.”

TV and radio spots. All the campaigns except McCain’s archive all TV commercials. The Bradley and Gore sites also archive radio ads. The Bush campaign is in the process of making its radio spots available.

Speeches. All the campaigns archive all major speeches, which means everything except standard stump speeches, which are the same every time they get delivered. Small quibble: Stump speeches aren’t alwaysexactly the same.

Transcripts of press conferences. These almost never get posted.

Scripts of advocacy calls, “push polls,” or whatever you want to call them. These almost never get posted. For example, if you want to hear a recent automated phone call from the McCain campaign about Bush’s tolerance for “anti-Catholic bigotry,” you have to go to this MSNBC site, scroll down to where it says, “The automatic phone calls in Michigan,” and click. You can’t hear this by going to the McCain Web site.

Voting records. Three of the four presidential candidates served in Congress. None has his congressional voting record posted on his site, even though it’s public information of some legitimate interest.

Campaign contributions. Only the Bush campaign posts campaign contributions regularly on its Web site. (To search the donor database, click here.)

The Webmasters of the major presidential campaigns tend to be cagey about why they provide only some public information on the Web. Most of them say, with some justice, that there are only so many hours in a day and there is only so much they can do with limited staff. Max Fose, the Internet manager for the McCain campaign, says his campaign’s Web site is tailored to the unique sensibility of the Web audience. “What we’ve found is the Internet community … [doesn’t] want to see that negativity that happens in campaigns,” he told me. But it’s hard to imagine a campaign press officer attempting such an alibi if he were confronted by a major news organization that wanted a copy of, say, some instant-response leaflets passed out at a debate the evening before. With the media in general, campaigns have an unspoken rule: Campaign documents provided to a few reporters must be made available to all. Although campaign press offices are meant to serve the PR interest of the candidate, that interest is understood to include not yanking back information it already made public. It’s futile for the campaign to try to screw the press by withholding already released information, because if it does so it will only suffer by getting unfavorable coverage.

But the Internet-using public has no such expectation, so campaigns face little prospect of punishment when they withhold from Web distribution certain official campaign pronouncements. So what if a Webmaster gets 12 angry e-mails from voters wanting to know precisely how Candidate Y derided Candidate X in a radio ad that aired in Bakersfield, Calif.? Lynn Reed, the Web consultant to the Bradley campaign, is more forthright than her counterparts when she says that what goes onto the Web site has to do primarily with “campaign strategy and message strategy” and not with preserving every campaign utterance for posterity. Sometimes, she says, “a press release will be written in a frame of mind for a journalist who’s in the middle of a story” and won’t be posted on the Web site because the general public “either doesn’t care about it at that level of detail or doesn’t need to know about it at that level of detail.”

The problem with this approach is that a campaign can’t be objective about what voters “need to know” about its candidate. That’s why it’s good that Gore and Bradley are now making the nastier sides to their campaigns more visible on the Web. Before, candidate Web sites were pretending to voters that the nastiness didn’t exist. Now at least there’s some accountability.