Academics once lauded the Internet as an idyllic haven for issue-driven, information-saturated positive campaigning. But the proliferation of negative sites in the 2000 campaign suggests that attack politics has hit Web in a major way.
“Certainly, negative and comparative campaigning is increasing in 2000 compared to 1998, both in absolute and percentage terms,” said Steven M. Schneider, a research fellow studying online politics at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Absolute is obvious—more Internet campaigning, more negative Internet campaigning,” Schneider said. “Percentage is more interesting. As a percentage of all Internet campaigning, we are finding that there is more negative content in 2000 than in 1998.”
There is plenty of evidence to back up Schneider’s findings in three key Senate races: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Washington state. All feature either attack Web sites or negative online campaign tactics.
First, Pennsylvania, where the Generation X group X-PAC recently launched dumpsantorum.com, a site dedicated to ridding the political world of Republican Sen. Rick Santorum. The site features a prominent picture of the freshman senator stuffed into a garbage can and includes exclusively negative information about his record and offers no policy alternatives.
The “Trash Talk” section provides a link to Santorum’s Democratic opponent, Rep. Ron Klink, but the Klink link can’t provide the positive part of the message either because the lightly funded campaign’s Web site is still “coming soon.”
To be fair, the anti-Santorum site has some altruistic, interactive functions. It helps visitors register to vote, send a letter to the editor, and e-mail their friends—though the form e-mail provided contains yet more slams on Santorum.
Expect more of these “citizen action” portals from 28-year-old X-PAC Executive Director—and lone staffer—Mike Panetta (no relation to former White House chief of staff Leon). All the sites will focus on candidates who favor various Social Security “privatization” plans, which X-PAC opposes. The next target will be Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe in Arizona’s 5th District.
In Michigan, the online campaign has also turned decidedly nasty in the last week. It started with Libberaldebbie.com, an attack site sponsored by Republican Sen. Spence Abraham, among the most vulnerable Republicans in the country.
Liberaldebbie is chock-full of nasty whacks at candidate Debbie Stabenow, including a photo that morphs the Democrat’s face into a particularly unflattering shot of an almost midgetlike Hillary Rodham Clinton. Another feature provides a calculator that estimates how much a Michigan voter would have paid for a tax increase that Stabenow proposed while running for governor in 1994.
Other bells and whistles—there is literally a place to “blow the whistle on Stabenow’s loony proposal to fight crime”—purport to show what a liberal whacko Stabenow really is.
Tennessee-based McKee Foods Corp., maker of Little Debbie snack cakes, has accused the Abraham campaign of trying to dilute the Little Debbie trademark. A McKee spokeswoman did not return a call for comment.
The site does include a prominent disclaimer at the top, which notes that the Little Debbie company “does not in any way endorse any political candidate. They just make really tasty snacks.”
The University of Pennsylvania’s Schneider points out that the catchy URL is the Abraham attack site’s greatest strength. “I’d look for a Spence Abraham advertisement with the theme, ‘Debbie Stabenow: Too liberal for Michigan. Liberaldebbie.com tells why,’ ” Schneider said. “We might find that Web surfers are more likely to visit a site to follow up on a negative reference than a positive reference.”
Michigan Democrats fired the next salvo in the cyberwar last Thursday with Dollarsandspence.net, paid for by the state party, which claims to offer “the truth about Spence Abraham’s record.”
And just what is that record? Why, Abraham is in the pocket of every special interest under the sun, of course (users can take a poll on the site to vote on which interest has its hooks in the deepest) and is guilty of all kinds of campaign-finance violations.
Abraham’s campaign went ballistic over Dollarsandspence, issuing an e-mail screed attacking the “lame copy-cat site” and calling Stabenow the “queen of soft money” for allowing the state party to pay for the site.
Abraham manager Joe McMonigle said the site amounts to a violation of federal election law. For proof, he produced a quote in which Stabenow campaign manager Robert Gibbs predicted that a response site to Liberaldebbie would go up soon. Since Dollarsandspence went up several days after the Gibbs quote, McMonigle concludes, it must have been the result of coordination with the state party and thus a violation.
Nonsense, says Gibbs, who concedes that while he “had knowledge” that a site was going to go up, he had no “substantial coordination” with the state party over what the site would contain.
Did Gibbs feel vulnerable having Liberaldebbie up on the Web (and featured in news stories) with no response? “It’s clear that the rules of engagement in Internet politics are following exactly what has gone on with television commercials in terms of the need to respond rapidly and let no charge go unchallenged.”
In Washington state, the Web wars have focused on a picture of Republican Sen. Slade Gorton featured on Democratic primary candidate Maria Cantwell’s campaign site. The image file, which actually lived on Gorton’s campaign server, showed the senator posing with a protester in a giant salmon costume.
The Gorton team wound up getting the better of the exchange by changing the picture on their site to one of the senator smiling happily and posing with two groups of supporters, which then automatically appeared on Cantwell’s site. The fight over the links quickly devolved into charges of hacking and hypocrisy.
That feud seems to have cooled off, but the other Democrat in the Senate primary, State Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn, is getting ready to go on the attack against Cantwell over cyberprivacy.
Senn consultant David Browne said his candidate’s campaign will make an issue of Cantwell’s past work as an executive at RealNetworks, which, along with the advertising firm DoubleClick and others, has been sued for allegedly tracking surfers on the Web.
There are also independent negative campaign Web sites at work in the Washington race. The Democratic state party maintains one “Dump Slade” page within its site but there is another, dumpslade.com, which is not affiliated with the state party (or with Panetta’s X-PAC). Though the site does not display it anywhere, it is registered to Seattle resident Tim Greyhavensis, a Democratic activist, who could not be reached for comment.
This type of negative site is what worries Internet political analysts the most, particularly as Webmasters improve in covering their digital footprints. How are people to tell whether a campaign is really behind any of these “volunteer” sites? And should the sites count as in-kind campaign contributions if they are indeed separate from the campaign?
Any number of other attack sites are popping up all over the Web, and the presidential candidates are getting into the act as well.
The most recent entrant is Bushinsecurity.com. A creation of Vice President Al Gore’s campaign, the new URL is an example of how campaigns are beginning to establish satellite sites to deliver the negative hits, allowing a candidate’s main page to stay relentlessly upbeat.
“By launching the site as a stand-alone, it focuses people’s attention on the issue,” said Ben Green, Gore’s online strategist.
Lynn Reed, an online strategist for Bill Bradley’s presidential bid, was a pioneer in this online strategy. In 1998, she launched missedvotes.com for Democrat Brian Baird’s successful bid in Washington’s 3rd District. The site tracked the votes missed by his Republican opponent, a state senator.
“One of the advantages of these sites is that they communicate one single point of view,” Reed said. “And it’s often easier to do with a negative message.”