A democratic medium plays big 2000 role

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"If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain."

The quote is often attributed, falsely, to Winston Churchill. But if the statement is true, it could spell bad news for Republican political candidates in the Internet age.

Conventional wisdom holds that the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who develop Web sites tend to hang more with the Democrats than with the GOP.

But the politics of Net creatives might not matter if you buy a second theory: Money talks.

Employees of interactive ad agencies clearly influence the quality of candidates' Web sites. Staffers "are often young, strong and opinionated," said Sandra Gassmann, president of Sage Marketing & Consulting, New York. "They are very sure of themselves and advocate strong issues."

POTENT WEAPON IN 2000

As one theory goes, these young, wired creatives tend to skew more Democratic and liberal than Republican and conservative.

But interactive agency professionals and political observers, just like the Web itself, had a wide range of opinions. One issue isn't open to debate: The Web will be a potent weapon in the next election. One could pity the modern politician.

As if lacking Warren Beatty's looks, Rudy Giuliani's toughness or Hillary Clinton's name recognition weren't scary enough, politicians need to polish their Internet appeal, according to a study by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

"Campaigning on the Internet in the Off-Year Elections of 1998" concludes that 1998 "will go down in history as the first election cycle in which a new medium--the Internet--played a major campaign role."

In 1996, the Internet was a "novelty," made famous by Bob Dole's recitation of an incorrect URL for his own Web site, the study says. But things changed drastically in '98. Of 1,296 major-and minor-party candidates running for Congress or governorships last year, 43% had a campaign Web site; at least 16% of those sites were run by a professional consultant.

VENTURA CAMPAIGN A VIRTUAL 1ST

The study also credited Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura with running "the first 'virtual' campaign" in 1998. Throughout most of the campaign, Mr. Ventura did not even have an office.

"The Internet did not win the election for us, but we could not have won without [it]," remarked Phil Madsen, Mr. Ventura's campaign cyber strategist and current Webmaster.

Mr. Ventura, running under the Reform Party banner, gained an unusual victory since few politicians running outside the two main parties win any kind of office in this country.

Web operations that help political candidates appear to be populated with a wide range of people.

"This is a creative environment," said Matt Reinhard, VP-creative director at FCB Worldwide, San Francisco. "It's a pretty young group of people. There's not a lot of time to do Young Republican-type stuff."

Phil Noble, principal with Phil Noble & Associates, a Charleston, S.C., non-partisan political fund-raising and Internet consultancy, called the premise of a Democratic bias "interesting." Nonetheless, "I'd like to see some evidence that it's true, other than a bunch of us so-called pundits sitting around thinking about it."

HARD EVIDENCE SCANT

Hard evidence to support a bias at agencies in favor of either major party is scant.

"The [interactive] industry is young," said Mickey Cohen, director of business development at 360 Interactive, Atlanta. "The young understand it and the young are shaping it. What medium is more liberal, free and democratic than the Internet?

"That said," Mr. Cohen continued, "the Net is a level playing field and Republicans will have an equal voice because, as with all media and politics, money talks. All parties can buy exposure."

Kim Barnes, a partner in strategic planning and research at Bozell, Chicago, said parent Bozell Worldwide has done work for both major parties.

"When a client comes to you with a project, you're thinking on behalf of the client," Ms. Barnes said. "Republicans can find agencies that will work for them, too."

Hockaday Donatelli Campaign Solutions is one of them. "We think some of the people doing the coolest Web sites are obviously our clients," said Becky Donatelli, chairman of the Hampton, Va., Internet consultancy that designed the official campaign site for Mr. Giuliani in his GOP senatorial bid next year in New York. The company is also heading up online fund-raising for U.S. Sen. and GOP presidential hopeful John McCain.

BIG ONLINE FUND-RAISERS

"[McCain] and [Democrat] Bill Bradley are the two candidates that appeal most broadly to the American people and are raising the most money online," Ms. Donatelli said, noting that fund-raising is a valid way--though not the only way--to measure a site's effectiveness.

Ron Gunzberger, publisher-editor of the Politics1 Web site (www.politics1.com), concedes "some of the more creative interactive ad agencies probably skew to a younger age than the average adperson." Still, he disagrees this will pave the way for the Democrats in 2000.

"Steve Forbes' site is among the best online," Mr. Gunzberger asserted about the site (www.forbes2000.com) created by Hensley Segal Rentschler, Cincinnati. "Of course, his money probably has something to do with the quality of his site." (Mr. Forbes, a Republican presidential candidate, is the multimillionaire editor in chief of Forbes.) Mr. Gunzberger further noted that it was a GOP man, Lamar Alexander, who was the first presidential contender to launch a campaign Web site, in 1995.

"Democrats don't have a lock on youth or talent," Mr. Gunzberger said.

Among Democrats, Mr. Gunzberger likes Vice President Al Gore's site (www.algore2000.com) better than that of former NBA star Mr. Bradley (www.billbradley.com) since it's updated more frequently and has more information.

GOP front-runner George W. Bush's site (www.georgewbush.com) has a screen that partially obscures the text, but also has an easy-to-find list of individual campaign contributors and political action committee donors.

Mark Grimes, principal at Eyescream Interactive, Portland, Ore., initially agreed that most interactive ad agency employees would likely call themselves Democrats. Then he rethought that conclusion.

"We've got communists, fascists, left wing, right wing," Mr. Grimes said. "They're creative, free-thinking people, which doesn't necessarily put them on the Democratic side."

FUTURE VS. PAST

In fact, Mr. Grimes likened staffers' political views to the nature of the Internet itself. "The kind of people that are attracted here are so diverse, with such different kinds of backgrounds, that they aren't going to be put into that Democratic box."

"The Net is not a partisan division," said consultant Mr. Noble. "It's much more of a future vs. past division than left vs. right. The smart, future-oriented people in both parties are Internet people. The reactionary Democrats and the reactionary Republicans are both Internet-ignorant."

Copyright October 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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