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Washington Journal: Internet Serves As An Important Tool In U.S. Elections

Washington, 30 October 1998(RFE/RL) -- As the November elections approach in the U.S., more and more American politicians are turning to the Internet as an important campaign tool.

Unlike many types of mass media such as radio and television, the Internet is proving to be an inexpensive and effective way of reaching voters. Advertising on the Internet typically costs far less than on radio, television or in print, and offers an unlimited arena for discussion, presentation and debate with a huge built-in audience.

In fact, last April, the U.S. Department of Commerce released a study that indicated the number of Internet users worldwide is doubling every hundred days, with more than 100 million people already online. The report also said Americans are going online faster than any other nationality. More than 70.5 million (out of 202 million U.S. adults) are currently using the Internet, according to a survey conducted last August by Nielsen Media Research and CommerceNet.

The enormous potential of the Internet is not lost on political candidates. With a large reservoir of voters available at the mere stroke of a key, candidates are designing web pages that offer everything from detailed photographs, biographical information and even video, as well as in-depth position statements and links to supporting political and lobbying groups.

A recent survey conducted by Congressional Quarterly and published in its Campaigns and Elections magazine, determined that more than 63 percent of the candidates surveyed, who are running in 1998 local, state or district elections, have an Internet web site up and running. Another 21 percent said they planned to have one in the near future.

According to the survey, the candidates consider the most important use of the Internet to be the ability to provide immediate and accurate information to voters in regards to their specific views on policy issues. Other uses of the Internet include providing news about the campaign, communicating with supporters and endorsing groups, and enlisting the aid of volunteers. The least most important use of the Internet, according to the candidates, is to raise money and attack the opposition.

But interestingly enough, while candidates see the Internet as a powerful tool, few are investing much of their campaign budget on web sites. The Congressional Quarterly survey showed that 43 percent of the candidates surveyed said they would spend less than 500 dollars designing, building and maintaining their sites, while 80 percent said they would spend less than 2,000 dollars. Since 62 percent of the campaigns polled said they expected to spend in excess of 50,000 dollars on the entire campaign, the low expenditure on the Internet places it far behind other mass media such as television, radio, direct mail and telephone contact.

Nanette Levinson, an associate professor of international relations at American University in Washington, told RFE/RL that it is not surprising that candidates are only now fully beginning to realize the vast potential the Internet has as a campaign tool.

She says the Internet is completely changing the way Americans process ideas and communicate with each other. But she adds that she doesn't think it will take long before politicians figure out a way to translate the Internet into big votes.

Levinson says the Internet holds great promise to strengthen America's political system and widen voter participation.

Explains Levinson: "We (voters) don't have to rely necessarily on a Washington Post or New York Times.... endorsement for a candidate or an editorial. We can actually get information directly over the Internet from the candidate's themselves that relates to the candidate's positions." Another major, but currently under used Internet advantage, says Levinson, is that the Internet offers candidates another way to reach people in their states or districts that don't have English as their first language. She says that whereas most campaign television, radio and print advertisements are in English -- in order to reach the widest possible audience -- a web page can easily set up a mirror site in a different language.

Levinson explains: "There are a large number of American citizens who speak second languages and are often very much at home reading or obtaining information in that language -- perhaps that of their birth country. So, interestingly, there is some data that shows that those individuals -- many of whom are voters -- are accessing sites in languages other than English."

Moreover, Levinson says these advantages and others of the Internet are available and affordable to all kinds of candidates -- those from the two major political parties who are running huge state-wide elections, to those managing small local campaigns.

As it stands now, according to the Congressional Quarterly survey, slightly more Republican candidates (69 percent) have web sites than their Democratic opponents (63 percent). Half of all the third-party campaigns also have Internet sites. Campaigns for congressional and state offices were more likely to be on the Internet (71.1 percent), than district and local campaigns (56 percent).

Wendell Cochran, an assistant professor of journalism also at American University says those numbers will grow rapidly as more and more politicians become more comfortable with using the Internet.

He says some of the advantages of the Internet such as its accesRFE/RLhe convenience of letting the voter decide when, where and how much of the information to obtain, will almost certainly increase voter interest and perhaps even participation.

Cochran says he believes the Internet will likely equal or surpass television as the most important campaign communication tool within the next few years.

He explains: "I think (the Internet) is the most important new communication technology since the printing press. Television has a lot of attraction for candidates and has obviously become an important campaign tool because of its ability to reach large audiences with a fairly standard message....But the real power that is eventually going to come out of the web is the ability for politicians to identify specific groups of voters with specific interests and target messages directly at them. Television does not have that ability to really do that."

He says that the politicians who determine a way to attach a specific message to a specific audience and tailor messages directly to them will likely have the most success with the Internet.

Cochran says that if you compare Internet usage to earlier U.S. elections, the growth of the medium is astounding. He says that in 1994, there was hardly anyone paying attention to the Internet. But by 1996, all of the presidential campaigns had some kind of Internet presence, including the first widespread use of the web for presenting policy and issue material, he says. He adds the numbers of candidates with web sites in 1998 has doubled.

Cochran concludes: "It's my belief that by the year 2000, there won't be anyone trying to run a presidential campaign that doesn't make extensive use of the Internet in a variety of ways."

(Another in RFE/RL's series previewing 1998 general election in US)