Can tech turn an election?

Conventional wisdom states that John F. Kennedy won the 1960 presidential election because he made better use of a new technology: television. Fast-forward more than four decades, and the Internet is generating considerable buzz as the principal campaign tool of 2004.

But is that buzz justified? Many observers credit a well-designed Web site and an efficient e-mail system for Howard Dean’s spectacular rise from obscurity to front-runner. But that lead disappeared as actual votes came in from Iowa and New Hampshire. As a way to attract voters, the Internet proved to be, as former vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen famously said of a rival, “no John Kennedy.”

A Digital Flash?

“The Internet revolution of Howard Dean hasn’t yielded the results some people expected,” says Stuart Rothenberg, political analyst for Cable News Network LP LLLP (CNN), and editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report. “At the end of the day, you still have to appeal to people and convince them to vote for you.”

Here’s the problem, say political pundits: Undecided voters just don’t visit candidate Web sites. If they’re curious enough to research candidates over the Web, they’re more likely to visit news and commentary sites, which they see as less biased and self-serving.

Arthur Lupia, a political science professor at the University of Michigan and co-author of The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What They Need to Know? says television is still the primary tool for swaying potential voters.

“TV advertising works. You’re watching Seinfeld and this ad comes on. You don’t change the channel,” Lupia says. “That doesn’t happen with Web sites. You’re not a captive audience.”

Surveys Say, ‘Surf!’

Survey results announced by ComScore Networks Inc. on Jan. 28 appear to suggest Web sites do affect voters. It says that nearly 20 per cent of people visiting political Web sites credit those sites with changing their opinion of a candidate or issue.

But a close examination of the report’s methodology makes that statistic less surprising.

The survey defines a “political Web site” to include not only candidate and party sites, but also advocacy sites such as and ones that combine news and commentary such as Voters already sympathetic to those sites’ political philosophies may be likely to go there seeking candidate information that is less self-serving than a campaign site but that still hew somewhat to their political outlook. ComScore did not note which kind of political site changed people’s opinions, says research analyst Graham Mudd.

Best Use of the Web

If undecided voters don’t go to candidate Web sites, who does? Current supporters, of course.

The “real value (of these sites) is raising money, communicating with supporters to schedule events, and generally boosting energy for the campaign,” Rothenberg says.

Lupia considers the Internet an amazing organizing tool, allowing campaigns to stage a series of rallies with nothing but a good e-mail list. “It takes five minutes to type the e-mail, and soon 10,000 people know about it. Ten years ago, think about how much that would have cost,” Lupia says.

In addition, many analysts note that the Internet can be a big help with one of candidates’ biggest challenges: raising money. As many shoppers know, spending money on the Web is all too easy. All candidate sites have a big “donations” button.

Will Redesign Help?

Can better sites help the candidates get votes? Research firm Adaptive Path thinks so. Its Jan. 26 report rates each Democratic candidate’s site on design and navigation, and on what it provides to those who plan to vote for the candidate, those who want to volunteer, and those who are undecided. Adaptive Path’s report also offers general recommendations for political-site designers.

As in the Iowa caucus, Howard Dean came in third in Adaptive Path’s ranking — an even more surprising result, given that only his famous Web site was being judged. The winning sites were Wesley Clark’s and John Kerry’s.

Will the report, which is available free on Adaptive Path’s site, make a difference? Its author, Jesse James Garrett, says the advice has already “found its way into the Clark campaign.”

But he believes that the Edwards campaign is the one worth watching in terms of an online makeover. “They placed low in our ranking, and the campaign itself seems to be right on the edge of a serious nomination,” Garrett says.

Back in 1960, Kennedy barely beat Nixon. In a close election, new technology could still be among the factors that provide an edge.

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