Visit the campaign Web site of Vice President Al Gore and you’ll find little sign of the post-election maneuvering that has besieged Florida since Nov. 7. The site remains eerily frozen in time, featuring the same message from campaign chairman William Daley on the home page since Nov. 10.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s camp, meanwhile, has stepped up its online activities, with updates of the continuing legal battle in Florida on the candidate’s site and an e-mail campaign seeking donations to support the Bush team’s efforts to block recounts in the Sunshine State.
The difference in both style and strategy illustrates the Internet’s still precarious role in the political process. On the one hand, Bush’s burst of online activity could signal another step toward a new political era, in which campaigns live in perpetuity online beyond Election Day. On the other hand, the post-election abandonment of the Net by Gore and other congressional candidates is evidence of a stubborn resistance toward digital politics.
Steven Schneider, editor of NetElection.org, a joint project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, the Center for Governmental Studies, and the Center for Public Integrity, thinks the former is the way of the future.
“I think the Web is clearly going to be on the front lines of the new permanent campaign,” Schneider says. “This is sort of the natural evolution.”
But, he acknowledges, candidates are “still fighting the Internet,” adding that neither Gore nor Bush is really tapping the vast potential of the Internet to transform America’s political system.
Sen. John McCain was the first major candidate to maintain a post-election Web presence. After losing the presidential primary, the Arizona Republican created his Straight Talk America Political Action Commission and its accompanying Web site, which can be accessed at both straighttalkamerica.com and McCain2000.com.
“There’s no point in not keeping that Web traffic, especially if you are now soliciting for help to [another] cause,” says Tom Yeatts, co-founder of online political consultancy Virtual Sprockets and an adviser to McCain’s online campaign.
Granted, with or without the Internet, Bush and Gore are entering uncharted political territory in the fight for Florida’s Electoral College votes. Gore has been fighting for a recount, and Thursday seemed to score a small victory when the Florida Supreme Court approved a plan by Palm Beach County to hand count ballots. But on Friday, Bush moved ahead in the litigation game, when a federal judge ruled that the state can reject any recounts.
Gore has created a recount committee to concentrate on the high-stakes Florida showdown. His campaign for the presidency is officially over, and its Internet strategy has closed down along with it, leaving visitors to the official Gore site to search for the latest information elsewhere. But Democrats looking for the party line on Florida’s sudden-death match online also come up short at the sites of the Democratic National Committee and the Florida Democratic Party. Democrats.org offers only a statement from DNC national chair Joe Andrew thanking supporters and a plea for a fair and accurate ballot count.
Florida Democratic Party spokesman Tony Welch says traffic to the state party’s Web site has probably doubled or tripled since election week. Even still, the only sign of the election uncertainty on Florida-Democrats.org is a small section providing a toll-free number for voters who want to report fraud or other problems in their election districts. His explanation: “Here in Florida we’ve been a little busy.”
“Maybe the Republicans are doing a better job than us” online, Welch adds. “They have more staff than us.”
Indeed, the chaos in Florida seems to have spurred the Republican Party into action online. The Bush campaign is updating its site daily with statements from former Secretary of State James Baker, campaign Chairman Don Evans and George W. Bush himself. The campaign added a four-page list of contributors to his recount fund to the site Wednesday night, including those reached through e-mail solicitations. Similarly, the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Florida have been updating their sites regularly with speech transcripts.
“People are still watching the events going on and want to know the recent news and events surrounding the situation in Florida and the situation of the campaign and election,” says Bush spokesman Bob Hopkins. The Bush site received 339,918 hits last Friday, he says.
But in an online discussion sponsored by the New York Times, one reader identified as “i13tonyv” preferred Gore’s strategy. “The Gore site is brief, fair, and clear, while the Bush site sounds like a fifth-grade whining contest,” the reader wrote.
Political strategists take another view. Both Yeatts and Schneider considered Gore’s suddenly low-key Internet presence a misstep. “Their Web site should serve as the archives of their activities,” Schneider says. “Bush is marginally better, [with] more links to statements and stuff like that.” But Bush still falls short, they argue, because his site lacks information on Florida legal briefings, which are commonly found on news sites.
Whoever ends up conceding the big prize in this cliffhanger of a presidential election, Yeatts says, should use his Web site to thank supporters and refer them back to their parties’ sites in an effort to hold on to that support. After all, it’s never too early to start thinking about the 2002 election.