No, Really, This One’s a Net Election

How to tell if the Internet mattered in 2002.

Political pundits proclaimed 1996, 1998, and 2000 as the first Internet elections, but there wasn’t much to it. True, John McCain and Jesse Ventura used e-mail and the Web to mobilize supporters, but most candidates just propped up Web sites resembling online yard signs and went back to offline campaigning. Bob Dole may have gotten 2 million hits the day after mentioning his Web site during a 1996 debate, but its most interesting feature was an online crossword puzzle (4 Across: Name Dole’s dog) that surely didn’t swing many votes.


But in this year’s midterm elections, a broad swath of candidates has discovered that information technology can be enormously effective in organizing get-out-the-vote efforts, precisely targeting likely voters, and getting information quickly to core supporters. As a result, the 2002 election might be the one where the Internet proves its political potential.


Take Texas’ Tony Sanchez, the Democratic candidate for governor. His volunteers have ditched their clipboards and instead port around Palm M105s. They interview voters, note their answers with styluses, and upload the data to campaign command central. Undecided voters receive a slew of phone calls and e-mails about the issues that matter most to them. Supporters will get automated messages on Election Day that announce their poll locations, offer van service to get them there, and beseech them to call and e-mail their friends.


The Palm data on every voter contacted by Sanchez’s volunteers is made available through an intranet to campaign offices across the state. Campaign workers in Odessa can log on Tuesday and find up-to-date information on all the Sanchez supporters on the Odessa Jackalopes or all the undecideds in their neighbor’s apartment complex. On Tuesday, the campaign’s field workers will e-mail precinct turnout data to headquarters, so central command can decide in real time where to focus get-out-the-vote energy.

Candidates have done this sort of stuff for centuries. Sanchez is just doing it vastly better, faster, and more efficiently than Boss Tweed or Bill Clinton could have. As the campaign says, it’s “grassroots politics on steroids.”


But will it matter? Below are eight races, including Sanchez vs. Perry, where one candidate has integrated information technology more fully and more smartly than his or her opponent. Many of the candidates with the best technology aren’t on the list—for example Bill Simon and Gray Davis in California—because they are running against each other and cancel each other out. Other interesting candidates aren’t included because they are irrelevant—such as Tara Sue Grubb, a libertarian congressional candidate in South Carolina who publishes a personal blog called tarasue4u.

If technology makes a difference, and if the conventional wisdom hasn’t adequately accounted for it, then each of the wired candidates should exceed expectations on Tuesday. To be sure, the Net won’t make all the difference in these races. After all, the race with the biggest gap between the candidates’ Internet strategy was between the technophile Paul Wellstone and Norm Coleman. And we know that forces beyond the Internet will decide that one.


Check on Wednesday to see how many of these eight predictions come true. If six or more do, let’s designate 2002 the year of the Internet. If not, let’s wait till next time.


1. Texas Governor: Tony Sanchez (D) vs. Rick Perry (R)
Sanchez isn’t just uploading voter info. He has also used his Web site to spin reporters in real time during a debate and to help supporters figure out how to vote early. He has built small sites targeted to specific voting populations, a site devoted to refuting his opponent’s attacks, and sites for constituent groups. He has even built a very funny video game.

Perry isn’t a Luddite, and he has copied some of his opponent’s moves. But Sanchez has the best Internet strategy of 2002, and it should give him a boost.


Conventional wisdom: Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball says that the race is “Likely Republican,” the  Political Oddsmaker favors Perry by 9 to 7, and the most recent poll puts Perry up by 15 points.

If being wired matters: Sanchez loses by less than 10 or even wins.

2. Florida Governor: Jeb Bush (R) vs. Bill McBride (D)
Unlike his older brother, Jeb Bush is a bit of a geek who has used the Internet since the early ‘90s. He has built one of the best Web sites in the country and has been aggressively and bilingually soliciting folks online to volunteer for his campaign and to work on Election Day.


Conventional wisdom: Sabato says the race “leans Republican,” the Oddsmaker picks Bush 20 to 19, and recent polls are mixed, though Bush appears to have a slight edge.


If being wired matters: Jeb cruises by five points or more.

3. Control of the House
The Republicans are more wired than the Democrats. They are richer and much smarter about technology, at least among the House leadership. Type “house of representatives congress republicans” into Google and you find GOP.gov, where you are greeted by news about the war on terrorism and have access to 1,694 informational e-mail lists. The House Democratic Caucus site is vastly inferior.

The Republicans have also figured out more creative ways to advertise online (check out this fund-raising appeal from J.C. Watts) and to get out the vote. In Illinois, for example, House Speaker Dennis Hastert has organized an online 72-hour strike force to rally troops electronically on Election Day. This party advantage disappears in the Senate, where individual candidates matter more, but it should swing a few House races the GOP’s way.


Conventional wisdom: Sabato gives the Republicans a tiny edge and the Oddsmaker favors Republicans to retain control of the House 12 to 11.


If being wired matters: Republicans add a couple of seats to their majority.

4. Tennessee Senate: Lamar Alexander (R) vs. Bob Clement (D)
Alexander was an online innovator when he ran for president in 1996 and 2000, and he’s at it again with the same Web site: lamaralexander.org. Neatest of all, he’ll soon be unveiling a new technology called “Groopz,” which allows visitors to the Web site to have live chats with campaign staffers and volunteers. If an undecided voter comes to the page on Election Day and wants to know about the candidate’s environmental record, a staffer can e-mail back prepared text, answer questions live, or even direct the visitor to a page with relevant info. Bob Clement has a big picture of himself on his site.


Conventional wisdom: Sabato calls the race “likely Republican,” the Oddsmaker favors Alexander 5 to 4, and the most recent polls gives Alexander a 10-point lead.

If being wired matters: Alexanderwins by 15 points or more.

5. Maine Senate: Chellie Pingree (D) vs. Susan Collins (R)
Pingree started her campaign by sending e-mails to supporters while shacked up on a small island off Maine’s coast. She has put huge resources into building an e-mail list, and her Web site focuses on bringing visitors into her campaign. Collins, meanwhile, took her time getting online, and until Monday, her Web site gave viewers the eerie sense that her campaign bus was about to run over her kayak. Perhaps reflecting that, Google shows that more than three times as many sites link to Pingree’s site than link to Collins’.

Conventional wisdom: Sabato calls the race “likely Republican,” the Oddsmaker favors Collins 5 to 3, and the most recent poll shows Collins up by nearly 20 points.

If being wired matters: Pingree loses by less than 10.

6. Alaska Governor: Fran Ulmer (D) vs. Frank Murkowski (R)
The Alaska Democratic Party is an online mess. Senate candidate Frank Vondersaar announces on his cryptic Web site that he “is a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, from Alaska. He is Pro-Jobs, Pro-Choice and Anti-Fascist.” House candidate Clifford Mark Greene’s home page proclaims, in all caps, “AT THE BEGINNING OF THE 21st CENTURY, OLD GUARD WANTS WORLD TO HOLD ON TO NUCLEAR ARSENALS, DOES NOTHING ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING.”


This makes it all the more impressive that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fran Ulmer has made sure that contact information and state voting records are accessible to her campaign workers through an intranet. She has also built a fairly good Web page with easy-to-find volunteering and contact information.

Conventional wisdom: Sabato calls the race a toss up, the Oddsmaker calls it dead even, and current polls call it even, too.

If being wired matters: Ulmer wins.

7. Indiana 2nd District: Chris Chocola (R) vs. Jill Long Thompson (D)
Chocola has a first-rate Web site with links, volunteering information, and a nice fat photo of the candidate stepping out of Air Force One with the president. Long Thompson’s bland Web site primarily tells you that she grew up on a farm and provides one prominent news link to an anodyne September press release announcing a “change in tone.”

Conventional wisdom: Sabato says that the race leans Republican, the Oddsmaker calls it even, and the polls, which aren’t as reliable in individual House races, are mixed.

If being wired matters: Chocola wins.

8. Kentucky 3rd District: Jack Conway (D) vs. Anne Northup (R)
Conway has built a substantial e-mail list of campaign supporters and is planning to position them around the district on Election Day to monitor turnout and get voters to the polls. He has also built a Web site that tracks his movements live in the final days. Basically, it’s a Tony Sanchez strategy on the cheap.

Conventional wisdom: Sabato says the race is leaning Republican, the Oddsmaker picks Northup at 9 to 8, and the polls are mixed.

If being wired matters: Conway wins.