Net Election

The Best Campaign on the Web

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

The Internet makes politics faster, but does it make politics any different? Candidates use their Web sites to raise money, organize volunteers, inform voters, and distribute campaign materials more efficiently than ever before. But few candidates use the Net to do anything truly new. For the most part, campaign Web sites and e-mail are just digital versions of direct mail, telemarketing, and the fax machine.

In Washington state, one candidate may be changing that. Maria Cantwell, who is running in Washington’s Democratic primary for the right to challenge Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, had the résumé of a career politician until 1994. She served eight years in the state legislature and one term in Congress before being ousted in the ‘94 Republican sweep. But for the past five years, Cantwell has worked as a senior vice president at RealNetworks, the Internet multimedia company. (She is on leave while she campaigns.)

Because of her RealNetworks experience, Cantwell has garnered some national attention, mostly for her wealth. The Seattle Times estimates the value of her RealNetworks stock at $15 million—not Jon Corzine money, but not chump change, either. Cantwell has already given $1 million to her own campaign and reportedly is willing to kick in up to $4 million of her own money.

But Cantwell deserves attention for another reason. Her campaign’s Internet presence is among the more innovative in the country, and not in the way you might expect from a RealNetworks executive. Noticeably absent from the Cantwell 2000 Web site is the use of streaming media, the technology that made RealNetworks famous and Cantwell rich. Instead, the campaign is innovating by using one of the Internet’s earliest and least-ballyhooed technologies: the listserv.

A listserv like the Cantwell 2000 Discussion List represents a form of communication (and campaigning) unique to the Internet. It facilitates many-to-many communication, as opposed to the one-to-many model of communication represented by other mass media. Every message mailed by one member of the list goes to all members. An e-mail newsletter is controlled by the sender, who pumps out information, but a listserv is a community of voices.

Therefore, using a listserv involves a fairly large transfer of control away from a campaign. A listserv doesn’t help a campaign to stay “on message.” And it would be easy for the opposition to infiltrate a listserv and disrupt the campaign’s message. That’s why most campaigns use a newsletter, and not a listserv, to communicate with voters. (Cantwell uses both.) Campaigns want to control their message, control the media, and avoid surprises.

The Cantwell discussion list is moderated, but John Beezer, the campaign’s Internet director, says he will filter out only messages that are mean-spirited, off-topic, or overly repetitive. “You’re walking the line between censorship and open forum,” Beezer says. “I think we have to take that approach.”

But the Cantwell campaign is allowing critical voters to have their say. Take this message, which promotes Cantwell’s Democratic primary opponent, Deborah Senn and includes the following comments:

If you look at Maria’s website, particularly the voting record, it doesn’t appear she … sponsored successful legislation to address issues. It just says she voted for party-line issues. Which is great … but I think we need someone to go after issues that are critical to the physical and financial well-being of all Washington’s citizens, not just tow the line.

Why would the Cantwell campaign be willing to facilitate—even tacitly sponsor—the delivery of this kind of criticism into a voter’s in-box?

First, as with most things on the Internet, a listserv is a more efficient way to communicate with voters. “You can’t respond to 10,000 voters one at a time,” Beezer says. “However, 10,000 voters can have an interesting and engaging conversation with each other.” (Right now, there are about 80 members of the Cantwell discussion list, with about five new members added every day. Beezer hopes to reach 1,000 members, assuming Cantwell wins the Sept. 19 primary.) And the campaign can send a single message that answers a question that is on the minds of multiple voters, instead of having to send each voter an individual response.

Second, and perhaps more important, there are advantages to being a part of a real conversation. Voters and political junkies can talk politics at any number of places on the Net (as David Plotz outlined in this Net Election). Why not let them do it where you can hear them? “The discussions and the things on the list are the things being talked about in the real world,” Beezer says. “If they’re talking about them on the list, we know about them, and we can respond to them.” The campaign can answer criticism, correct misrepresentations, and listen in on the electorate’s dialogue.

As the list membership increases, Beezer hopes to create multiple discussion lists that are spun off from the central list. Citizens with an intense interest in taxes, for example, could form their own list that would be moderated by Cantwell’s tax adviser. A spokesperson for the tax list could report back periodically to the main list. Potentially, these multiple listservs could energize supporters and involve them in the campaign on a daily basis.

So far there is only one problem: Cantwell herself has yet to join the debate, despite a few messages directed specifically to her. If voters are to believe they are valued as members of an “interactive” campaign, they need to know the candidate is paying attention.