By now, you’ve probably heard that savvy use of the Internet has helped to push Howard Dean, the previously little known former governor of Vermont, into the front ranks of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Dean has raised more money online than any other campaign in U.S. political history; his staff is using blogging technology to create a more intimate, real-time relationship with its supporters; and they are deploying “smart mob” style tactics to quickly launch rallies around the country. Dean won 40 percent of the vote in an online “primary” run by MoveOn.org-an event that attracted more voters than the 2000 Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary combined. Pundits are calling Dean the cybercandidate.By all reports, Dean himself is no more digitally literate than any of his rivals, but his staff and supporters “get it.” They talk about the perfect storm of electoral politics, where the right person is employing the right technology to send the right message at the right time.
Of course, we’ve heard this kind of talk before. Many commentators had predicted that the Net might be the decisive factor in the 2000 election. By November 2000, 64 percent of all registered votes were Internet users and 90 percent of U.S. users of the Internet were registered voters. The Web was going to be the least costly and most effective means of reaching and mobilizing likely voters.
There’s no question that the Internet played key roles in 2000. Steve Forbes became the first person to announce his presidential campaign on the Web. Arizona became the first state to allow online voting in its presidential primary. Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain set their respective party records for online fundraising-records that Dean has now smashed. The nominating conventions were webcast. The Republican and Democratic parties used the Web to issue real-time e-rebuttals during the fall debates. Computer modeling allowed both campaigns to know where their voters were and thus to realize that something had gone wrong in Florida. Among users under the age of 30, half said that information they gained from the Web had changed how they voted-a sign of things to come.
Despite all of this, skeptical political scientists concluded that the Web was not a decisive factor in the 2000 presidential election campaign.
In my introduction to a new MIT Press anthology, Democracy and New Media, I argue that these disappointed pundits were looking in the wrong places. They were seeking some decisive moment-the contemporary equivalent of Roosevelt’s fireside chats on radio or the Kennedy-Nixon debates on television. Those events were emblematic of the broadcast era: they were important because they allowed candidates (or, in FDR’s case, the president) to directly address a significant portion of the electorate at the same time and with the same message. The current diversification of communication channels, on the other hand, is politically important because it expands the range of voices that can be heard: though some voices command greater prominence, no one voice speaks with unquestioned authority.
Previous candidates had seen their Web sites as high-tech brochures, often bringing to the Internet old, top-down assumptions about how campaigns are run. In 1996, for example, the Bob Dole campaign created a site that featured a click-on map of the United States. Was he able to localize and customize messages to the concerns of voters in specific states? Not exactly. Rather, you could find out which of the state’s party officials had endorsed the Dole campaign. The candidates hadn’t yet grasped the simple insight that using the Web as a read-only medium shuts people out rather than inviting them on board.