Net Election

The Wired Conventions

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

Instead of broadcasting the opening nights of the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer, ABC is planning to air two pre-season football games. The other networks are also, as usual, planning to “scale back” their coverage. But never fear: Dozens of Web sites will fill the void. So many online journalists will be wandering the convention halls that event planners are setting aside special sections at each called Internet Alley. “This convention will be like nothing anyone has ever seen before,” Lydia Camarillo, CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee, said recently. Perhaps, but all the hype about Web coverage raises an awkward question. The networks don’t want to cover the conventions because they’re boring and the ratings stink. What reason is there to think that people who don’t watch conventions on television are going to follow them on the Internet?

Take the America Online coverage. From gavel to gavel, AOL will feature audio and video of all proceedings, news reports, interviews, polls, trivia, links, bios, chat, and a 24-hour SkyBoxCam of the convention halls. A small coterie of political junkies will surely eat this stuff up, and AOL is to be commended for making it available. But will a general audience that doesn’t tune in to the network coverage have any interest? The same goes for, the CNN site that adds reporters on the ground and historical analysis to the 24-hour video/chat/breaking news formula. PseudoPolitics will allow viewers to choose which of several round-the-clock camera feeds they watch, enabling a tough choice between janitors sweeping the main floor and security guards snoozing in the lobby at 3 a.m. (Incidentally, Slate, too, will bring you daily dispatches from the conventions and a slew of analysis but, alas, no streaming video.)

The 24/seven coverage may in fact have the perverse effect of making the conventions even more scripted and substance-free than they would be without it. In his book Control Room, former CBS political director Martin Plissner argues that the stage-managed convention is a product of TV exposure. Politicians learned they would suffer unless everything in front of the camera went smoothly, so they systematically removed uncertainty by making key decisions, such as who would be on the ticket, before the conventions. Ironically, television helped create the rote conventions it now hates to broadcast. By Plissner’s logic, the more AOL shows, the less there will be to see. Handlers won’t let infighting and intrigue—all the stuff that makes politics fun—show up on the PseudoPolitics Webcast any more than on CNN.

The good news is that the Web will allow citizens to craft their own conventions, in a sense. The AOL site, Director of Political Programming Kathleen deLaski says, will allow members to follow the conventions “at the time and place of their choosing, on their terms.” If they like trivia, they don’t have to wait for Sam Donaldson to reminisce. If they want to find out what each candidate says about global warming, they don’t have to be on the lookout for three sentences in an hourlong speech. Many Web sites cater to specialized audiences of various kinds. The Spanish-language site Terra, for example, will Webcast live from the convention floor and provide analysis for Latino voters, and will give full coverage to the delegation from Bucks County, Penn. There will be no need whatsoever to attend.

Another advantage of online convention coverage is the level of engagement it encourages. Because you can log on to do research, make a donation, or volunteer as soon as the spirit moves you, the Web harnesses political energy that would otherwise dissipate in front of the television. According to Michael Cornfield, director of the Democracy Online Project, this is what made John McCain’s Web site so effective. The Web site didn’t create the McCain electoral surge, but it was a place for voters (who donated $7 million via the Web) to go as soon as McCain beat George W. Bush by 19 points in the New Hampshire primary. In the same way, the Internet can keep any interest stirred up by the conventions alive in the dog days that follow.

Will the Web allow citizens to be more involved in what actually happens at the conventions? Granting for the purpose of argument that anything does happen at a national party convention, that prospect still seems remote. The Democratic National Committee has launched an interactive feature that lets any Web surfer suggest changes to the party platform. A letter on the Web site signed by Al Gore says he “looks forward to having you as an active participant in the future of the Democratic Party.” We’ll see how many items make it from this Internet-based suggestion box into party policy. In the meantime, the offer sounds a lot like a solicitation for unwanted junk mail.

The site hopes to provide a bit more amusement value. It features an interactive electoral-college map that lets users click on states until the electoral votes add up to the required 270. The site’s creator has said, “This type of strategy used to be conducted behind closed doors. … Now it’s available to anyone with Internet access.” Log on from a smoke-filled room in your own home.